A moratorium on the Pentagon program that allows police to get guns, armored vehicles, first aid kits and other equipment free or nearly free isn't warranted, Nebraska law enforcement officials say.
The 1033 Program has allowed about 30 area agencies to get everything from mine-resistant trucks and gas grenade launchers to tool kits and generators, according to data from the Nebraska agency that administers the program.
Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said sheriffs and police chiefs across Nebraska have shown they're using the program as intended.
"There’s accountability," he said. "It’s not being wasted."
But Amy Miller of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which has called for the moratorium in Nebraska, said her concern is that there’s no guarantee the militarized tactical technology won’t be misused because many departments lack policies on it.
"We're lucky to have a sheriff that is very sparing with his use of this technology," Miller said of Wagner, who got a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, last year.
"That doesn’t make this issue go away.”
Heightened scrutiny of military equipment being used in nonmilitary settings came in August as police rolled out federal surplus assault rifles and armored vehicles in response to protests over the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. On Monday night, much of the same gear hit the streets again when crowds reacted to news that a grand jury did not indict Wilson.
Critics have said the show of force escalates tensions and leads to more violence.
So far, federal legislation aimed at reforming the 1033 Program has gone nowhere.
Officials such as Wagner and Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken said they have a responsibility to properly equip and protect their officers so they can protect citizens.
“The people of this country have vested us with the authority to uphold the law,” said Lamken, whose department has received M-14 rifles and a Vietnam War-era gas grenade launcher through the program.
Almost all of the acquisitions made through 1033 are for property such as commercial trucks, office furniture and supplies, generators, tents, tarps, tool kits and first aid kits, according to the Pentagon agency that operates the program.
The Pentagon has tight control of M-14 and M-16 rifles, armored vehicles and other tactical equipment.
Wagner said such equipment helps police chiefs and sheriffs across the state prepare for the worst at a much lower cost.
"The taxpayers have already paid for equipment once," he said. "Should it be destroyed when it has a useful purpose in it?”
Wagner spent about $13,600 on the used mine-resistant vehicle his department bought. Its nonmilitary equivalent would cost about $400,000, he said.
His SWAT team, which trains with the armored vehicle monthly, has used it three times for cases in which people have barricaded themselves. It allows officers to get closer and keeps them safe, Wagner said.
Lamken said his SWAT team in Grand Island has never used its M-79 gas grenade launcher, which looks like a rifle, but his officers would probably deploy it as a last resort to shoot gas canisters to stun a barricaded, armed person.
Still, Miller of the ACLU is skeptical.
"It's hard to imagine a scenario when a community the size of Grand Island would need a grenade launcher,” she said.
The program stopped issuing grenade launchers to police in 1999, according to the Pentagon.
Miller said the fact that Nebraska law enforcement has received such items as grenade launchers and armored vehicles so quietly shows a need for more transparency. She understands why police chiefs and sheriffs might want to have the technology on standby in worst-case scenarios, she said, but she's been unable to find policies governing their use.
Miller has proposed that at the very least departments put stricter controls on their use of the program and bring the public along in their acquisitions, she said.
Earlier this month, Jim Bueerman, a retired police chief and president of the national Police Foundation, told a Congressional subcommittee reviewing 1033 that law enforcement should be required to prove a number of steps have been taken before getting tactical weapons and equipment through the program.
Those steps include getting public input about the possible acquisition, getting approval from the local governing body for it, implementing a publicly accessible policy governing its use and letting the public know when and how it is used.
Lamken said he’s not sure the requirements are necessary, because all of that already can be done voluntarily.
If Grand Island administrators want to know about his acquisitions, he’ll tell them, he said.
Asked Wagner: "Do we involve the public in all our equipment acquisitions, regardless of what it is?"
Unless the public remains informed and policies strictly regulate when military weapons and tactical equipment can be used by officers, Miller said the potential for situations like Ferguson exist.
“That’s why we have to be vigilant to make sure it does not happen here,” she said.