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How military gear found its way into police forces in southeastern Connecticut

New London and Norwich have armored vehicles. Ledyard has 23 semi-automatic weapons. Norwich has riot gear.

All were acquired through the 1033 Program, a federal initiative that funnels excess military equipment to local police departments free of charge.

The issue of militarized police again has been brought to the fore of national consciousness due to recent high-profile police killings of Black Americans. All told, in Ledyard, Groton, Norwich, New London, Waterford, Montville, East Lyme and Stonington, police have accumulated almost 100 rifles, nine former military vehicles and other equipment, including weapon add-ons and night vision binoculars and goggles, with a total value of about $2.4 million, from the 1033 Program. Connecticut’s police departments have received approximately $20 million in gear through the program.

The program was launched in 1997 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act under President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama discontinued the program in 2015 following outcry over the police use of military-style tactics to quell protests of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. President Donald Trump restored it in 2017.

Eric Fleury, assistant professor of government and international relations at Connecticut College, said the root of the 1033 Program is the U.S.’s relationship with its military.

“The country’s military budget is just as sacrosanct nationwide as police budgets are in individual municipalities,” Fleury said. “The real heart of the problem is trillions of dollars going into the Pentagon, which creates the need to discharge surplus equipment.”

While police chiefs say the equipment is rarely used, and some rifles and Humvees are only brought out for parades, Fleury said possession of the equipment leads to the temptation to use it.

"Even if you promise not to use it, I think the way in which military equipment shapes training and organizational culture is alarming," he said.

Fleury also spoke of how utilizing military equipment can lead to subtle culture changes.

"I've always thought about the hidden costs of war: Where does warfare percolate back into domestic society?" he asked. "War has spillover effects. It's a vicious cycle, in terms of the personnel, equipment and overall mindset. It can lead us to see the world as a battlefield."

Fleury said he understands the impulse to use the 1033 Program for free materials, but, for those who want to demilitarize police, "You need active pushback."

"Business as usual is not going to solve this problem, you have to actively engage it," he said.

The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association has issued a moratorium on acquiring surplus military equipment, and Gov. Ned Lamont announced that state police will no longer obtain "military and military-style equipment from the federal government until further notice."

Two local departments, Stonington and Waterford, are looking to dispose of some of the equipment they have received from the program.

Here is a look at what departments in the region have in terms of surplus military equipment, according to the 1033 Program database and information provided by the departments.

Norwich

On Jan. 7, 2013, Norwich police Officer Jonathan Ley was shot several times by a despondent man who had confronted police from an apartment window on Cedar Street. Still under fire from the man, who later turned the gun on himself, two other Norwich officers reached Ley and helped him hobble to an ambulance that couldn’t get to the scene safely.

Nearly four years later, on Oct. 24, 2017, a man wanted in a stabbing attempted murder investigation was spotted on Boswell Avenue. The man exchanged gunfire with police as he fled on foot into Greeneville neighborhoods. When police located the suspect, they enlisted a state police armored vehicle to approach him. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In both incidents, if Norwich police had a working military armored vehicle, it would have been deployed to protect officers, Chief Patrick Daley said.

Norwich has received two military surplus armored vehicles — a 1980 Air Force security armored truck attained shortly after Ley’s shooting, and a 2007 mine-resistant vehicle obtained in 2018. Both are out of service and have never been available for use, Daley said. He said he plans to get rid of the 1980 truck.

The city hopes to repair the mine-resistant vehicle and use it only for active-shooter situations and emergency evacuations, not for crowd control or to be deployed at public demonstrations. The two-axel, six-wheel vehicle could hold about 12 to 15 people in an emergency evacuation, perhaps more if required, Daley said. The city has had difficulty obtaining parts for the vehicle.

Officers would need to be trained to operate the vehicle, which would require certification similar to driving a fire engine, said Daley, a former volunteer fire chief.

“I see the need for it,” he said. “I get that people don’t want police having military equipment, but in an active shooter situation, the firepower out there can go through body armor.”

Norwich police also have received four 7.62 mm military rifles and eight 5.56 mm rifles, none of which is used by officers in the field, Daley said. The 7.62 mm rifles are wooden-barreled, ornamental weapons carried by the Police Honor Guard for public ceremonies. The 5.56 mm rifles are used for training. Officers on duty have civilian versions of M-16 military rifles, purchased and owned by the officers, he said.

Daley said Norwich has a limited amount of riot gear that’s “many, many decades old” and hasn’t been used in decades. Officers train with it, but not routinely.

New London

The department has obtained a host of items, most notably three former military vehicles.

Two of the vehicles are former military cargo trucks, which Chief Peter Reichard said were acquired in 2019 for high-water rescues. This would stop officers from “sacrificing” active service vehicles, he said.

The department’s acquisition of a Cougar, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, called an MRAP, caused backlash. The department had obtained the vehicle earlier this year without prior notification to city officials.

The armored vehicle has a gun turret and run-flat tires, and it is strictly to be used in active shooter situations when protection for officers or victims is needed, Reichard said. In a recent discussion with the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, he said he has a policy in place that the vehicle is not to leave the garage unless there is an emergency situation. 

City Councilor Reona Dyess questioned whether there have been any situations over the last five years when it might have been used. The answer from Reichard was “no,” but there have been situations nationwide where the vehicle might have been used. Rather than relying on state police response to an active situation at a place like a school, Reichard said the vehicle could respond much faster, something he said is critical in situations when time is of the essence.

Dyess, who referred to the vehicles as “tanks,” said with other police departments in the country using military tactics, “I do not want to see New London in that type of situation.”

“I want them sent for scrap and then the money used for community programming,” Dyess said. “It disturbs me greatly that we have this type of equipment here in our city without the precedent first.”

New London police Officer Ryan Soccio in February told The Day that the department had commissioned an Emergency Response Team in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings in 2018 to train in various high-risk scenarios, such as shooter response, hostage situations and armed barricaded subjects in which the Cougar could save lives.

The department additionally has acquired a variety of other equipment that includes an all-terrain vehicle, a trailer-towed generator and passenger van.

The department also has obtained 20 SPAX emergency tools, which are a combination of a knife, hatchet and pickax, 60 sets of safety glasses and four “combat casualty bags,” which are knapsacks designed to carry mobile medical equipment.

Waterford

The department has received a bevy of gun add-ons through the 1033 Program, such as thermal sights, rear sights and adapter rails, that bolster weapons. It also received more than two dozen 5.56 mm rifles, one cargo truck and three utility trucks. Chief Brett Mahoney said the rifles, as well as five barrel and front assemblies, have never been used, and the department is attempting to get rid of them.

The four department vehicles are not armored, but three are military service Humvees.

"We use those for high-water rescue when we have floods,” Mahoney said of the Humvees. “We ended up using them to ferry people over to East Lyme, but they let water in, so we recognized we needed a bigger high-water vehicle.”

The cargo truck, which used to be a rocket carrier, is used to install HVAC systems on town building roofs. One of the Humvees is used by the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority. Another is used during parades and events, such as toy drives. The third “sits on a hill at public works,” and the department uses it only for parts if something breaks on the other vehicles, Mahoney said.

The department also has five generators from the 1033 Program, which sit at radio tower sites in town and act as backups for the radio system.

Mahoney said the department has military and tactical items acquired outside of the 1033 Program, as well, including ballistic shields, which are valued at $3,500 and were privately donated, and cell extraction suits, costing $1,456 and purchased through the police budget in 2018. Every qualified officer carries an M4 rifle, costing a total of $11,600 spent between 2007 and 2019.

“We looked at those because of several high-profile school shooting incidents,” Mahoney said of the guns. “We have some tactical gear for cell extractions in case we have somebody that is in the cell that doesn't want to come out. And then we have some ballistic shields that a private citizen purchased for us after the Dallas police shooting.”

Town of Groton

The 1033 Program database shows that the town department acquired four 7.62 mm rifles for $138 each in February 1994. Chief L.J. Fusaro Jr. said the older wooden-stock rifles are in the department’s armory and are used for Color Guards in parades, not for police operations.

Fusaro said the department also obtained, prior to his tenure, two Humvees. The vehicles are configured for cargo and are not armored. One is not operational but is used for parts, he said.

The operational Humvee is put out on the road for patrols during heavy snowstorms, displayed during Touch A Truck events and can be used for additional purposes, such as during high-water rescues, but is not ordinarily on patrol, he said.

Ella T. Grasso Technical High School students worked on the vehicle and painted it black and white as a project, he said.

City of Groton

The city department acquired eight 5.56 mm rifles for $499 each in January 2005, according to the 1033 Program database.

Michael Spellman, who has been the chief since 2017, said the patrol rifles assist in protecting officers and the public. He said the department does not have any armored vehicles and has not obtained any items under the 1033 Program since 2005.

Ledyard

Town police have received 23 semi-automatic rifles through the 1033 Program, as well as two camera reconnaissance systems and other items. Chief John Rich said the state coordinator for the program sends emails with available equipment, which, in addition to weaponry, can include things like computers or weather-specific apparel. The department then reviews its needs to see whether it should pursue any of the gear.

Through the program, Ledyard has received large quantities of optical equipment. Rich said these items are used when searching for a dangerous wanted person in the field or for situations like serving a warrant, when officers need to be able to see better from the road. They're also used in training. Since these items are mission-specific, officers only have them if they're going into a situation where they'll need such gear.

Rich noted that some of the equipment received over the years has become obsolete as law enforcement has evolved. Two of the department's M14 rifles, for example, have been reconditioned for honor guards at ceremonies and parades.

East Lyme

The East Lyme Police Department received seven 7.62 mm caliber rifles in 1993 through the 1033 Program. Chief Mike Finkelstein said they have never been utilized and stay stored in the department’s armory.

The department got the rifles to use in an “active shooter situation.” But since they don’t have training or certification, officers can’t use the weapons now even if a situation warranted their use, Finkelstein said. The department and town have not had conversations about whether to keep the weapons, return them to the federal government or transfer them to a different department, he said.

He said his department is not in possession of any other military/tactical equipment apart from the 1033 Program.

Stonington

Capt. Todd Olson said the department acquired seven AR rifles through the 1033 Program, “but several months ago we started the process to return all of them to the military or another approved law enforcement agency that is seeking them.”

The department has been working with the 1033 Program administrators to complete the return, he said.

Montville

The department has received five 5.56 mm rifles and two 7.62 mm rifles from the program. The department did not respond to requests for comment.

Day Staff Writers Greg Smith, Claire Bessette, Kimberly Drelich, Mary Biekert, Amanda Hutchinson and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

s.spinella@theday.com

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