LOS ANGELES — The leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department said Wednesday that federal officials should restore the flow of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies to ensure officers aren’t put in danger when responding to active shooter calls and terrorist attacks.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told members of the House Judiciary Committee that it was critical for the federal government to reconsider the curtailment of a program that provided military-style equipment, including military grenade launchers, bayonets, armored vehicles and high-powered firearms and ammunition, to state and local police departments.
“What we’re trying to be able to do is to avail ourselves to the tools necessary to be able to put between our deputies and the danger — an active shooter, an explosion, those kinds of things,” McDonnell told The Associated Press Wednesday.
McDonnell stressed that the majority of the items his department had received through the program were generators, medical supplies, lockers and tools.
Then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 that curtailed the program, restricting access to some surplus equipment after an outcry over the use of military gear when police confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Police responded in riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles. At times they also pointed assault rifles at protesters.
Since the executive order was put into place, the Defense Logistics Agency recalled hundreds of pieces of surplus equipment provided to police agencies through the program.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he didn’t see a problem with the program, but said police departments should enact policies to ensure the equipment is used appropriately. The equipment could also be used during natural disasters or major floods, he said.
“There is no offensive equipment other than rifles,” Acevedo told members of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigation. “Other than that, it’s all defensive.”
State and local police organizations have insisted that military-style gear and vehicles help to protect officers and the public. An armored vehicle played a key role in the police response to the December 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino.
“In a terrorist situation, who gets the call? People call 911 and local police show up,” McDonnell said. “We can’t expect our people to be successful in our attempts to do that if we don’t give them the proper equipment to protect them in that effort.”
Los Angeles sheriff’s officials have also received armored vehicles, ballistic vests and helmets through the program, he said. Records show the sheriff’s department also received at least one mine-resistant vehicle as part of the program.
“The equipment isn’t necessarily used on a daily basis, but can be available during the right circumstances,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell conceded that some departments have not used their equipment “in a way the public would be satisfied with” but said police agencies need to implement stringent guidelines for when the equipment is used.