PORTSMOUTH -- After a decade of sending military equipment to civilian police departments across the country, federal officials are reconsidering the idea in light of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

Some police departments in Hampton Roads say losing the military gear would be detrimental.

'It would crush us,' Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson said.

Gov. declares state of emergency, issues curfew in Ferguson

The riots in Ferguson are stirring up criticism that police treated crowds like they were in a war zone, and giving officers military gear encourages a 'warrior' mentality, making people they serve enemies.

The shift in opinion could potentially end the decade-old program that gives military surplus gear to local authorities.

Federal officials said about 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in the program and weapons account for just 5 percent of the equipment distributed.

In 2011, the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office received about $200,000 worth of equipment, including a cargo carrier, dump truck, forklift and golf cart.

Virginia Beach said they were able to acquire their first armored personnel carrier.

'The addition of this vehicle greatly enhanced our department's abilities during those situations which come at high risk to the officers of our department,' spokesman Jimmy Cason told 13News Now. 'Execution of high risk search warrants, active shooters, or the evacuation of persons during natural disasters are the primary examples of when and how this vehicle would be used.'

Cason points out that the vehicle was given to the department at no cost to tax payers.

Williamsburg has also taken advantage of the deal.

Officers wore old military uniforms during training, and they received a diesel Chevy Blazer, which was used as a crime scene vehicle. They also received seven rifles, which were converted from fully automatic fire to semi-automatic. Patrol officers are still using them.

'I guess if the program were discontinued we would have to return the rifles to the military since they are still military property. Since we didn't receive a large amount of material, the impact on our department would be minimal except for the cost of replacing the rifles,' Williamsburg Police spokesman Maj. Greg Riley said.

The Chesapeake Sheriff's Office acquired free rifles, helmets, gas masks and foul-weather gear. The Norfolk Sheriff's Office has received furniture. Newport News has M-16 and M-14 rifles. Suffolk Police said they haven't used the military surplus program.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in June said police agencies had become 'excessively militarized,' with officers using training and equipment designed for the battlefield on city streets. The report found the amount of goods transferred through the military surplus program rose in value from $1 million in 1990 to nearly $450 million in 2013.

'Every police force of any size in this country has access to those kinds of weapons now,' said David Harris, a police expert at the University of Pittsburgh law school. 'It makes it more likely to be used (and) is an escalation all by itself.'

In Louisiana, masked police in full body armor carrying AR-15 assault rifles raided a nightclub without a warrant, looking not for terrorists but underage drinkers and fire-code violations. Officers in California train using the same counterinsurgency tactics as those used in Afghanistan.

'They're not coming in like we're innocent until proven guilty,' said Quinn Eaker. SWAT teams last August raided his organic farm and community, the Garden of Eden, in Arlington, Texas. 'They're coming in like: 'We're gonna kill you if you move a finger.''

Police found no drugs or weapons and filed no charges after their search, which authorities said followed standard procedure.

In 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to give surplus equipment to police to help fight drugs, which then gave way to the fight against terrorism. Though violent crime nationwide is at its lowest level in generations and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely concluded, the military transfers have increased.

Police say the equipment, which includes free body armor, night vision goggles and scopes, keeps officers safe and prepares them for the worst case.

'A lot evolved from the military, no question,' said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief Bill McSweeney, who heads the detective division. 'Is it smart for them to use that stuff and perhaps look like soldiers from Iraq going into a place? Is that smart or over the top? I'd say generally that's smart. Now, if you use that every time a guy is writing bad checks, that's getting rather extreme.'

The U.S. has provided 610 mine-resistant armored trucks, known as MRAPs, across the country, nearly all since August 2013, including at least nine in Los Angeles County, according to Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.

In rural western Maine, the Oxford County Sheriff's Office asked for an MRAP. Cpl. George Cayer wrote in his request that Maine's western foothills face a 'previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.'

In Orange County, Florida, masked officers in tactical gear helped state inspectors raid barber shops in 2010 to find people cutting hair without a license. Using a mini battering ram and pry bar at times, police arrested dozens of people. Officials said they found illegal items such as drugs and a weapon.

McSweeney said it's hard to argue that police shouldn't use the best equipment available.

'It's tempting to say, 'Shouldn't we wear these things? Shouldn't we approach this as if we could get shot?'' he said. 'How do you say no to that question?'

Nick Gragnani, executive director of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, said such supplies have proved essential in hurricane relief efforts and other disaster responses.

'The shame of it will be ... if somebody does a brushstroke and takes out all the funding and then we can no longer be prepared for that big incident,' he said.

The LAPD's deputy chief, Michael Downing, who heads the department's counterterrorism and special operations bureau, said officers are dealing with 'an adversary who is more sophisticated, more tactically trained.'

Downing emphasized that though police might train with soldiers, they're not warriors with a mission to kill but public servants with no 'enemies.'

'In police work there are times we have to become soldiers and control through force and fear,' Downing said. 'But we have to come back to being a public servant as quick as we can to establish that normality and that ethical stature with communities, because they're the ones who give us the authority to do our police work.'

Read or Share this story: