Special Report: Demilitarizing our police

Special Report: Demilitarizing our police

THOMASVILLE, GA (WALB) - It's been nearly a year since scenes from Ferguson, Missouri shocked many Americans.

Critics complained local police agencies were turning into military units.

Since then, the White House recently ordered major changes to the program that provides surplus military equipment to local agencies.

Many wonder how these changes will affect how South Georgia officers respond to serious emergencies and keep us safe.

In Thomas County, SWAT team members frequently go through intense training with military-style equipment donated by multiple federal agencies.

"You're preparing for something you hope you never use," said Lieutenant Tim Watkins with the Thomas County Sheriff's Office.

But speaking about how much equipment agencies were acquiring, he raised the question of need.

"I think that some agencies were going overboard with the amount of equipment they were actually getting," said Lt. Watkins.

To prevent that from happening again, the Obama administration altered the military surplus program, in response to criticism that local officers were starting to look like military troops.

Agencies can no longer get certain weapons over .50 caliber, grenade launchers, weaponized aircraft, and tracked armored vehicles through that program.

But Lt. Watkins said these restrictions should not dramatically affect his agency.

"I really can't think of a need for tracked vehicles in South Georgia," he said. "Maybe you would need them up north to get through the snow, but you're not going to need them down here."

But Pelham Police Chief Nealie McCormick said his city has already been affected by the new changes.

They had to return the department's 40 millimeter tear gas launchers, which they previously found useful during barricade situations.

"You'll have to fire more rounds," said Chief McCormick. "It may take six rounds to do what one round from a launcher would do."

Those additional rounds of ammunition will cost the department more money, while saving money was one of the main perks of the program in the first place.

"You have equipment there that's collecting dust," said Lt. Watkins.  "So instead of it collecting dust, you give it to protect the citizens of the United States. It's a great program."

The restrictions also include a list of controlled equipment that must be approved before being issued to any agency.

Those items include manned aircraft, drones, wheeled armored vehicles, specialized firearms, riot batons, riot helmets, and riot shields.

But Lt. Watkins said Obama's recent decision does not affect several other useful pieces of military surplus equipment that local agencies use.

"The guns.  It's a lot more. I mean, it's a worthwhile cause, it's a worthwhile program. Just everybody gets wrapped around the guns.  It's fire engines, it's light systems," said Lt. Watkins.

Other equipment includes tankers, generators, and free-standing lights.

Chief McCormick said they've been able to use military-issued vehicles to help clean up severe storm damage, as well.

Lt. Watkins said he hopes the new rules bring more attention to the actual need for certain equipment.

" I think this will actually bring about a change and maybe the powers that be will scrutinize a little bit more carefully who they actually issue it to," he said.

Chief McCormick said he predicted changes in the program as the perception of police militarization spread.

But he believes the restrictions can only do so much.

"I'm sure there's always misuse something and it's unfortunate," said Chief McCormick. "And the rest of everybody has to suffer for it."

Both agencies said they will continue to take advantage of what is available through the program to keep you safe and save your tax money.

More than $980 million worth of property was transferred last year according to the program's website.

Currently, more than 80,000 agencies receive equipment.

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