Published September 04. 2014 4:14PM Updated September 05. 2014 12:19AM
New Haven — From helicopters and rifles to mine-resistant armored vehicles and night-vision goggles, police departments across Connecticut continue to benefit from a federal military surplus program that has gained new scrutiny in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Mo.
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal met with local law enforcement officials at New Haven City Hall Thursday to discuss the Department of Defense’s “1033 program” and gain insight on what equipment police are getting and how that equipment is being used.
The acquisition and use of military equipment gained national attention following the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Local police there showcased military-style guns from atop armored vehicles in response to large protests. Many have argued the display incited further violence.
“Clearly the tragedy in Ferguson has trained the nation’s eyes on the transfer of certain equipment from the military to local police departments,” Murphy said.
Blumenthal said that when the Senate reconvenes later this month, it is expected to discuss the 1033 program, along with Homeland Security and Department of Justice grant programs that provide money to law enforcement.
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary and Armed Services Committees, said he has drafted a letter calling for a national policy and better transparency.
“There is no central point where information about these programs is compiled,” Blumenthal said. “There is no tracking of the equipment that is provided. There is no central point of accountability.”
Both senators received assurances that the equipment in Connecticut was being properly used and police were among the best trained in the country.
Local law enforcement officials in attendance said proper training and community outreach go hand-in-hand with use of military vehicles, guns and other equipment obtained either through the surplus program or federal Homeland Security grant funds.
While some ex-military vehicles are being used for deployment of such things as SWAT teams, officials said many are helping in rescue operations, such as the armored vehicle Fairfield Police Chief Gary McNamara said was used to access high water areas during the floods associated with Superstorm Sandy.
“It’s black. It’s intimidating looking. It has ‘police’ on the side,” McNamara said. “Clearly … that will intimidate you unless you’re stuck in your house and can’t get out.”
Waterford Police Department Lt. Brett Mahoney, earlier this week, said his department obtained three free Humvee utility trucks through the 1033 program, and they were especially useful during flooding events and a snowstorm last year when they were used to traverse roads covered in 2 feet of snow.
“It’s a worst-case scenario vehicle, and we’ve had some worst-case scenarios recently,” Mahoney said.
One of the Humvees is in the process of being outfitted so that it can be used as a display piece for the department and used at parades for community outreach, Mahoney said.
Norwich police obtained a light armored vehicle in the fall of 2012, the Peacekeeper, which they expected to use for rescue operations. But Norwich Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro said earlier this week that the vehicle was unreliable in terms of protecting officers and he made a decision not to put it to use.
The vehicle, or something similar, would have been useful in January 2013, when Officer Jonathan Ley was shot five times during a standoff with a despondent man. Fellow officers placed themselves in harm’s way to rescue him, and Norwich police called in help from a state police tactical team.
Fusaro later requested $274,000 from the city to purchase an alternative vehicle, a BearCat armored vehicle, which he said would be used strictly as a defensive rescue vehicle. The funding was ultimately cut from the city’s capital budget, but Fusaro said he would not be opposed to obtaining another surplus military vehicle if it would suit the department’s needs.
Fusaro said he expects to return the Peacekeeper.
“Our philosophy is community policing. But there are times when the danger is such you need to protect your officers and protect your citizens,” Fusaro said. “It’s certainly not every day that it does happen, but it happens.”
He said specialized vehicles are not used often, but when they are needed, “they are critical.”
Public Safety Commissioner Dora Schriro, who was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, said specially equipped units of the state police are located throughout the state and respond regionally when a need arises in the jurisdiction of a municipal department.
State police obtained two helicopters through the 1033 program, one of which is to be unveiled as Trooper 2 and used in operations throughout the state.
After listening to comments from representatives of New Haven, Trumbull, Fairfield and Southern Connecticut State University, Murphy said it was clear some of the items obtained by police were not their first choice, but rather a cost-effective option.
“The reality is your budgets are all strained, they’re all tight and it may be there is a better piece of equipment ultimately that would better meet your needs for instance in search and rescue, but without the funds to do so, it’s hard to say no to an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), which may not be a perfect fit but it’s better than having no answer,” Murphy said.
“It’s important for us to understand where the items coming from this program fit into the hierarchy of true need,” Murphy said.
Murphy and Blumenthal said that while no Senate vote on new legislation is expected on the matter, they expect a debate and perhaps administrative policy changes.