Despite some concern about the message it sends, officials this week greenlighted the continued use of military-grade equipment by the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
The militarization of law enforcement in the United States has been a common talking point in conversations about criminal justice reform over the past two years, as several high-profile police shootings have led to clashes between civilians and heavily armored officers in multiple cities across the country.
President Barack Obama took executive action to address some of those concerns by adjusting the parameters of the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. That program — established in 1997 — allows law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to find a second use for surplus military equipment.
However, with an executive order in 2015 the White House limited the items agencies can acquire through the program. Since then, law enforcement agencies wishing to participate in the program have also been required to get approval from their respective governing bodies.
When Sheriff Sam Cochran appeared before the Mobile County Commission this week seeking permission to apply for certain items included in the 1033 program, he was met with at least some resistance from Commissioner Merceria Ludgood.
Speaking to Lagniappe last week, Ludgood said she felt uncomfortable with the message a militarized police force might send to a community that’s still grappling with its own officer-involved shooting.
In May, Mobile police officer Harold Hurst shot and killed 19-year-old Michael Moore, and the results of local and federal investigations into the incident have not yet been released.“We’ve not had any reason in this community to feel like that [equipment] was something we needed, and I think it just kind of invites a controversy. If we start to do that, I think the message to the community is, ‘We think this is appropriate,’” Ludgood said. “I think it invites feelings that I don’t think are there now, but I would just hate to introduce that.”
Ludgood also said she felt confident the Alabama National Guard has “adequate resources” to deal with large-scale rioting and other issues that might require more tactical equipment.
Cochran, however, said his deputies don’t have time to sit and wait for the National Guard when trying to resolve dangerous situations in the field. He also pointed to the recent “ambush killings” of police officers in Dallas, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as examples of the heightened dangers officers can face in today’s environment.
“If you listen to the 911 call from [Baton Rouge], the first thing you hear the deputies holler for is the Bearcat — an armored vehicle — so they could get out there and get to their wounded,” Cochran said. “The Guard would be 72 hours away in a situation like that.”
While the motion approved Oct. 10 only authorized MCSO to continue its participation in the 1033 program, Cochran said his department has been on a waiting list for a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle for years.
While Cochran said he was aware of “the concerns some have about over-militarization,” he also said the 1033 program is more about saving money than about making stronger weapons available to law enforcement.“Of what we’re looking into, armored vehicles might be one of the only concerns that some could have, but everything on this equipment list is commercially available to us already,” he added. “Armored vehicles you can buy commercially, but you can also get a similar one through the federal government, and you may save between $400,000 to $500,000.”
Without an MRAP, Cochran said there’ve been many times when his department has had to make do in potentially deadly situations over the last several years. Specifically, he referenced the 2013 standoff his deputies had with Tavaris Gulley, who, after killing his wife, holed up in a car by his mother’s grave at Pine Crest Cemetery in Citronelle.
After refusing to surrender, Gulley exited the vehicle holding a weapon and was fatally shot. However, with no armored vehicle at the department’s disposal, Cochran said his deputies were forced to slowly approach Gulley inside a converted “bread truck” the MCSO still uses today.
“It’s not armored at all, so when they made an effort to approach [Gulley], he waved a gun at them, and they killed him,” Cochran said. “That’s an outcome that might have been different had we been able to approach him more safely in an armored vehicle.”
While the Defense Logistics Agency has the final authority to determine the type, quantity and recipients of any surplus military equipment, Ludgood said it was the inclusion of items like “rotary wing aircraft, riot helmets, riot batons and breaching devices” that gave her pause.
Currently, Cochran said he and his deputies have no interest in acquiring those types of items, but added he “doesn’t know what the future might hold.”“I can tell you that we do expect to see more violence in this country. We’re already facing threats from terrorism in addition to these assaults on police officers,” he said. “I’d rather apply for something before a problem arises and not have to jump through red tape after the fact to get equipment in a time of crisis.”
While Ludgood still voted against the sheriff’s request, she didn’t find support from her fellow commissioners, and the motion to allow MCSO’s continued use of the 1033 program was approved 2-1. For Ludgood, continuing the use of militarized equipment brings with it the potential to erode some of the trust local law enforcement has been striving to build in the community.
“We’re trying to work this out for the community to feel like they have a voice and that law enforcement is responsive to the community concerns,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing and the way to go, but this, to me, is a step away from that. Some of this equipment, by its very nature, creates kind of a confrontational atmosphere that I just don’t think is appropriate for our community.”