Use of military surplus weapons vary across Maryland police departments

BALTIMORE - The Garrett County Sheriff's Department has a grenade launcher.

In Wicomico County, that sheriff's department was assigned a mine resistant vehicle.

Baltimore County Police got nearly 275 M-16's while about 70 of the military assault rifles also landed in Carroll County and 50 more went to the University of Maryland College Park Police.

And those are just a few highlights of the $8.5 million of military surplus equipment property books show ended up in the hands local law enforcement in the past year alone.

RELATED: Maryland law enforcement agencies receive military grade equipment

"There certainly is a fine line between becoming a military agency and policing and when to use that and how often to use that which is where the issue really comes into play," said former Baltimore Police Commander Bill Davis.

Davis spent 25 years with the Baltimore Police Department and is now with a policing think tank group called Advanced Leadership Consortium.

The issue of police militarization was highlighted by the law enforcement response in Ferguson, Missouri, but it is not new.

Since the late 1990s, the Department of Defense has had a program now known as 1033 where local police departments can request and receive military hand-me-downs.

The 1033 program received a lot of media attention and according to the property books here in Maryland, it is used quite a bit.

"Working with the Baltimore Police Department and also in having knowledge and colleagues in many other police departments around the country, many police departments are, I don't know if I would use the word stockpiling, but they are acquiring that equipment so they can use it in the case of emergency," Davis said.

In case of emergency is the qualifier for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"The issue isn't whether we have it, it's how you use it," the mayor said.

Using military gear to break up a protest is not how Rawlings-Blake says she would ever envision using the inventory of equipment she knows Baltimore Police have, but at the same time preparedness is still king for a city along the east coast in the post 9/11 era.

"I don't ever want to be in a position in this city where we need that type of equipment but for some silly reason, we decided that we weren't going to accept it," the mayor said. "We need to be prepared. We are a very short car ride from DC, we understand that DC and NY are targets, so we have to be prepared."

RELATED: Mayor Rawlings-Blake: 'Very unusual' to use military equipment against own citizens

It is why Baltimore actually uses other means for its military style equipment.

While the 1033 program is used throughout the state to arm other departments, Baltimore in the past year has received equipment like washer/dryers, laptops and binoculars.

In fact, Baltimore Police are sending back 20 M-14 rifles later this year.

It is through Homeland Security Grants where Baltimore receives most of its equipment.

According to City Hall, since 2008 Baltimore Police have spent $600,000 on military style equipment.

The descriptions of which are kept very general but include robots, body armor, explosive entry equipment and other tactical gear.      

"The vast majority of it is used for our swat teams and these are the most highly trained highly effective officers that we have. We put them into very dangerous and very violent situations and we want to make sure those situations are resolved as peacefully as they can be and our officers go home safely at the end of the night," said Baltimore Police spokesperson Lt. Eric Kowolczyk

But statewide, reports show Maryland police departments are deploying SWAT teams and, in some cases, this military equipment more often.

According to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, SWAT deployments statewide have been on a slight uptick.

While data for 2013 has yet to be finalized, SWAT teams were deployed about 30 more times in 2012 than 2010.

"Our police departments do need to be prepared for that to happen but it should not be part of your everyday patrol experience," Davis said.

Davis says the key is training and knowing when to use the tools.

In the age of erring on the side of preparedness, it is just as important not to make an error with perception.

"Police Departments, even though they are government agencies, it is really about branding and you want people to perceive your police department as open and honest and approachable and sometimes when you put military uniforms on police officers , that image changes and their mindset changes," Davis said.

Now while generally SWAT deployments were on a slight increase statewide, according to the governor's office, Baltimore Police, the largest force in Maryland saw a decrease from year to year by about 60.

It is important to note a lot of this military equipment acquired through the 1033 program is repurposed for civilian use; a grenade launcher is used to launch tear gas and a mine resistant vehicle comes minus the machine gun attached.

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