The role of local law enforcement agencies is to protect the public, not wage war.
But a federal program is providing surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the country, including South Carolina, that does not always fit with that goal. From 2006 through May 2014, S.C. law enforcement agencies collectively received 28 of the 432 mine-resistent ambush protected vehicles handed out by the U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 program. No one paid much attention to the equipment flowing to the states until the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., when police used military equipment from the program to face off with its citizenry.
It's good to see that our local law enforcement agencies have not received a bounty from the program, nor have they requested it. The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has received two armored cars while the Bluffton Police Department is interested in a vehicle that can navigate standing water to aid in rescue efforts during severe storms and floodlights to illuminate crime scenes and accidents at night.
And the Beaufort Police Department has received 13 assault rifles and a 1967 utility truck used for storm recovery and has requested more assault rifles and two electronic fingerprint scanners.
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Good judgement is key with such a program. To date, our law enforcement agencies have exhibited just that, remembering that their role is to keep the peace, not engage in battle. Most of their received equipment will aid in investigations and bolster rescue efforts.
And for those pieces that could be abused, such as the Sheriff's Office's mine-resistent ambush protected vehicle, it has been used sparingly in extreme cases only. Sheriff P.J. Tanner has called in the Peacekeeper just six times since 2000, usually to send officers into an area where shots are being fired.
Others such as the Port Royal Police Department relies on the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office to handle high-risk situations so it no longer participates in the federal program. Deputy Chief Ron Wekenmann of the Port Royal Police Department makes a convincing argument that heavy artillery doesn't fit with the town's focus. Plus, such equipment would raise logistical problems, including where to park it and how to maintain it.
We hope the sound judgement of our local law enforcement agencies remains in tact as the Obama administration reviews the program.
It may well be that new restrictions are needed to limit the types of equipment local police receive -- and stunt any desire to use the military-grade equipment in routine police operations.
The program's regulations likely need an overhaul too. For example, they currently require police to use what they receive within one year -- a caveat that greatly increases the odds of overzealous use of the equipment and military tactics that may work well in war zones, but not on America's Main Streets.
Law enforcement is sworn to protect and serve. Fortunately, our local law enforcement agencies are taking that solemn oath to heart. So should the Department of Defense.