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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Commentary: Does law enforcement need military weapons?

The pictures out of Ferguson, Mo., showing law enforcement in camouflage, pointing assault rifles from armored vehicles at unarmed protesters, has crystallized a debate over whether a federal program – the Excess Property Program – has gone too far.

Sometimes called the 1033 Program, it has supplied police departments across the country, including Plant City’s, with more than $4.3 billion in gear since 1997.

With the use of military equipment in Ferguson, the program has come under scrutiny by civil rights advocates.

The debate is an important one.

The use of military equipment – how, when and even if it should be used – is at the heart of the matter.

The image of heavily armed officers in full combat gear squaring off against unarmed protesters look like images we’re used to seeing from places like Afghanistan, Gaza or Iraq – not from a town of 20,000 people just outside the city of St. Louis.

In keeping the peace, should our police look like they are waging a war?

Local law enforcement agencies must use great care when deciding how, and how often, to deploy military equipment.

According to Plant City Police Chief Ed Duncan, all government surplus equipment must adapt in a meaningful way to civilian policing.

“We will not request any equipment that is beyond our needs and capability,” Chief Duncan said. “Surplus equipment is carefully monitored to insure that it complies with our initial intention and police officers have been properly trained in the use of military equipment.”

Plant City may have a small police department, but it packs some big firepower. The department has received 25 M-16 semi-automatic rifles, valued as an estimated $53,000, from the Excess Property Program, along with needed computers and office furniture – all compliments of Uncle Sam.

The price: the cost of processing and delivery.

A good deal for the Plant City community?

I think, yes.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has said that the Senate will examine the 1033 program as part of this year’s pending defense authorization bill. But while we’re focused on what’s going on in Ferguson, as well we should be, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

True, with a small department in a small city, you don’t often run into situations where you require the firepower of an M-16.

But sometimes you do.

Reference: Plant City, Dec. 5, 2008.

It was like something out of the movies – a high speed police chase, 30 seconds of flying lead from the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and bloodshed.

But this was no movie; it was real life drama played out on the streets of Plant City; murder suspect Francisco Rangel, who took this city by storm, and the police determined to take the city back.

The drama started when police spotted Rangel driving a white Ford expedition and gave chase down Collins Street. During the chase Rangel suddenly stopped his vehicle at the intersection of Collins Street and Henry Avenue and opened fire, spraying several rounds of steel-jacketed bullets from an AK-47 type machine gun, disabling two detectives’ cars and killing a bystander, 58-year-old Candelario Lagunes.

Rangel then fled north on Collins Street through downtown and abandoned his SUV at the intersection of Palmer and Calhoun Street.

The city’s historic district with its peaceful setting looked more like a war zone.

After a six-hour manhunt Rangel’s capture brought an end to the fear he imposed on the community.

The toll: two people dead, one critically wounded, and a community paralyzed by fear.

There’s a second, smaller-scale arms race going on in the world, one between criminals and police. The Saturday Night Special – usually a cheap .22-caliber ‘’peashooter” once popular with muggers and drug dealers – has given way to large-caliber pistols and assault weapons. Some, like the one Rangel used, capable of firing more than 600 rounds per minute.

The M-16 semi-automatic rifle, technology and tactics that have been provided by the governments surplus program has helped give our police department the edge over the bad guys in protecting you, your family and the community; yet the military surplus received by our police department largely go unnoticed by the public.

Most people cannot think of Plant City without some whistling in the background and a freckled-faced, barefoot boy named Opie with a fishing pole, walking with his father, the town’s unarmed sheriff on the Andy Griffith Show.

Unfortunately, those days are over.

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