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From Ferguson to North Georgia, today's police resemble the military
Hall County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team member Sgt Kelley Edwards dons the department’s protective vest.

Gear list: What local law enforcement has on hand

Gainesville Police Department
Glock G22s & G23s
Colt M4 AR-15s
Remington 12 gauge shotguns
9mm SMG
Ballistic Shields
Pepperball guns (less lethal)
Beanbag Rounds and deployment system (less lethal)
Distraction device rounds and deployment system (crowd control)
Taser X26 & X2
Self-contained breathing apparatus (gas masks)
Kevlar helmets

Hall County Sheriff’s Office SWAT
BearCat armored vehicle
Tear gas
Less lethal rubber pellet rounds
Shields, helmets, body armor


Department of Defense 1033 program
What equipment have local law enforcement received?

Gainesville Police Department:
M-14s in 2006 and M-16s in 2011

Hall County Sheriff’s Office:
M16s in 2006 and 2008

Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office:
M14s, respirators, rescue and medical equipment, boots, ammo, utility truck and a robot for explosive ordnance disposal


Night after night, the perception that police were heavy-handed in their response to the protests, amid sporadic looting, grew as a live feed showed law enforcement in a standoff with Americans.

The images included police officers rolling in on Humvees with mounted sniper rifles, decked out in full body armor and firing tear gas to disperse crowds, and shocked Americans of all racial, ethnic and political stripes.

In the aftermath, law enforcement officials across the nation were left to defend and review those actions.

“I think it was a national disgrace to see what unfolded,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. “Had the police first attempted to de-escalate, rather than jump in and stop the protests with force, hopefully we wouldn’t have seen all these stores that were looted.”

Moreover, federal programs that distribute military-grade equipment to local police forces came under fire.

The U.S. Department of Defense, through the 1033 program, has transferred more than $5 billion of military property to local and state agencies since 1997.

Last year alone, about $450 million in equipment was distributed to local law enforcement.

And after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the newly created Department of Homeland Security began issuing grants to local law enforcement to fund training and equipment purchases.

But as violent and property crime rates fall across the nation, many Americans are wondering why local police need as much resources and firepower as soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan.

“Any time you have an incident like this, it kind of brings people’s attention to the forefront on these issues,” Couch said.

Roots of the problem

While Couch recognizes politicians, protesters and the media acted irresponsibly at times, perhaps inflaming tensions, he holds law enforcement most accountable for the breakdown on the streets of Ferguson after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown.

Watching coverage of the events, Couch said it was clear that the relationship between the community and local law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb had eroded into finger-pointing and distrust.

“All relationships are built on trust and mutual respect,” Couch said, adding that there cannot be an “us versus them” mentality emanating from law enforcement. “That cannot be tolerated.”

Couch said that while the Sheriff’s Office actively engages the Hall County community through civic events, outreach programs and other methods, he feels more compelled now to increase the level of cooperation between his officers and the people they serve.

Couch believes law enforcement’s strong show of force in Ferguson made the situation exponentially worse than it had to be.

Indeed, Couch said studies he’s reviewed reveal that heavy-handed responses from authorities tend to increase the likelihood of resistance and violence.

Comparatively, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department have used the 1033 program sparingly.

While other counties and municipalities across the country have acquired tanks, Humvees and other armored vehicles, plus an assortment of weapons, technological devices and gear, Hall County has only obtained a few M16s in 2006 and 2008.

The same is true for Gainesville. The agency received a few M14s in 2006 and a few M16s in 2011.

Meanwhile, Forsyth County has received everything from M14s and respirators to rescue equipment, medical equipment, boots, ammo, a utility truck and even a robot for explosive ordnance disposal.

Couch said he has no intention of seeking additional resources through the 1033 program.

Because Gainesville relies on the Hall County Sheriff’s Office for SWAT support, its need for military grade equipment is inherently less substantial.

Keeping force to a minimum

What equipment and resources one agency chooses to apply for could be simply a matter of preference rather than any attributable need. Yet there are only a few situations where a SWAT unit is warranted, Couch said, and he believes these specialized, military-like forces are overused nationwide.

When to move SWAT into a situation is always a judgment call, but Couch said it’s important to have policies and guidelines in place.

For example, the mere presence of firearm would not, in and of itself, justify sending the SWAT team. Nor would serving a simple drug warrant.

When Habersham County sent its SWAT unit to conduct a no-knock warrant for a purported drug offense May 28, bad intelligence led officers to burst into the home when the suspect wasn’t around. The raid ultimately led to a baby being severely burned by a flash grenade.

That’s an incident Couch would like to avoid at all cost.

“It’s imperative to everyone’s safety to gather as much intelligence … as possible,” he said.

The local SWAT unit typically responds to domestic hostage situations, an active shooter alert, unruly crowds and in the movement of violent, high-profile inmates.

Hall County dispatched its SWAT unit just eight times in fiscal year 2013.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office has had three officer-involved shootings in the last five years, with two persons killed in those incidents.

The Gainesville Police Department reports just one officer-involved shooting in the last 12 months.

Where do we go from here?

In light of the events in Missouri, President Barack Obama ordered a review of all federal programs that distribute military resources to local law enforcement or fund the purchase of such equipment.

Moreover, the review will entail whether local law agencies are receiving proper training for the weaponry they receive.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat representing Georgia’s Fourth District, plans to introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act this month.

Johnson said he’s been working on the bill for months but it became more pressing as events in Missouri unfolded.

“This bill will end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for,” Johnson said in statement to federal lawmakers.

Finally, perhaps the most substantial change likely to arise from the events in Missouri is now on display in San Diego, Calif.

The police department there recently began making patrol officers wear cameras, which resemble a mobile headpiece for a cellphone. A key piece of evidence missing from the shooting death that set off weeks of protests in Missouri was video footage of the incident.