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Federal weapons recalled from local police as lawmakers try to limit use of military gear

Last modified: 2/12/2016 12:41:27 AM
The Meredith Police Department never got a chance to use its grenade launcher.

The equipment, obtained at least nine years ago through a U.S. Department of Defense program, was recalled by the Obama administration as part of its reconsideration of a federal policy giving surplus military gear to local police departments.

On Jan. 13, the Meredith Police Department mailed the grenade launcher back to the feds, paying $37.52 to ship the 8-pound package to a defense depot in Alabama, according to a postage receipt.

Under a recall effective Oct. 1 of last year, the Obama administration asked police forces across the country to send back certain surplus military equipment – tracked armored vehicles, bayonets and grenade launchers – by April 1.

The move comes at a time of growing national concern that such gear is unnecessary and used inappropriately to militarize local police forces.

Meredith’s handheld grenade launcher, also known as an M79 “thumper,” is the only military equipment in New Hampshire eligible for the nationwide recall, according to the state Department of Safety.

Plenty of other military-style gear will stay put. Through 2014, New Hampshire police departments received nearly 400 assault rifles, more than 100 night vision and body armor pieces, and 20 pistols and shotguns through a defense department program, according to a database compiled by the New York Times.

The Times data doesn’t include several armored BearCat vehicles that have come to the Granite State, including one that the city of Concord acquired in 2014 with the help of a $258,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Several lawmakers are calling for prohibition of such equipment in the state, saying the gear increases the chance of violence between civilians and law enforcement. The House recently voted to table a proposal from Rep. JR Hoell to stop state agencies and local police forces from acquiring military-type equipment and vehicles that aren’t widely available on the commercial market. A legislative committee is studying the topic.

“Why do we need 400 rifles that are potentially fully automatic? We’re not at war,” said Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican. “They are police. They are not supposed to be paramilitary, yet we’re outfitting them like they are.”

The Meredith Police Department acquired its grenade launcher at least nine years ago, under the leadership of a chief who has since retired. It’s not clear why the department, in a town of roughly 6,250 people on Lake Winnipesaukee, sought the equipment.

Despite having a grenade launcher, the Meredith Police Department has never owned a grenade, and the launcher was never used or issued to any officer, according to Meredith police Lt. Keith True. It was meant for a less lethal use of force, True said, like a beanbag round, which is meant to disable someone instead of kill them.

The M79 came into combat use during the Vietnam War and was used to shoot grenades a much further distance than what they could be thrown by hand, said Michael Qualls, associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University in Georgia who also served in the U.S. military. Qualls said he expected the grenade launchers could be used by police departments to launch canisters of tear gas or to lay a smoke screen. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.) Meredith’s grenade launcher is one of 138 total that the federal government distributed to police forces across the country, and to date, 105 have been returned under the recall, according to the defense department.

The Lakes Region police department acquired the equipment through the federal 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to transfer excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies to help them fight crime and protect citizens. Local police forces don’t have to pay for the gear, but are expected to cover shipping and transportation costs.

The program has come under scrutiny, especially in the wake of a fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., when law enforcement confronted protesters from armored vehicles, and clad in riot gear.

Weapons make up 5 percent of the gear distributed to local police forces under the 1033 program. Other supplies include office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, computers, aircrafts and boats.

Some in New Hampshire say the surplus program is necessary to help cash-strapped local police departments get important equipment, like night vision gear, that would otherwise be out of reach.

“There are certain things that are very handy and save the towns a lot of money, and there are other things that some of the towns have gotten that they really don’t need,” said Rep. John Tholl, a Whitefield Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “It’s probably best left up to the individual towns what they need and what they don’t need.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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