Police turn to military surplus to keep streets safe

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Indiana police departments have been buying surplus military weapons and other equipment for decades. Perhaps never before have we seen so much of it being used at once. The images and police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri are raising questions about how local police are using that power.

In the battle to control Ferguson's city streets, police dressed and armed like soldiers and moving about in military vehicles, look like an occupying army.

"I think it's easy to say from 300 miles away, the use of military equipment probably escalated the situation," said James White.

A retired Army Lt. Colonel and state police district commander, White now lectures at IU's School of Environmental and Public Affairs.

"There is a place for military equipment and you have to determine where it is useful and where it is not useful," he explained.

As hundreds of police departments snap up surplus military vehicles and other equipment, it is a decision more police chiefs have to make.

The Lawrence Police Department has a new-looking, but used Army transport vehicle.

"I think public safety," said Capt. Gary Woodruff.

The massive and heavily-armored truck for its SWAT team. The Army used it to keep troops inside safe from live fire and roadside bombs. Buying a vehicle built specifically for police, Lawrence police officials figure would cost about $300,000.

"We don't have that kind of money," Woodruff said.

For $6,200, Lawrence has a vehicle that is both intimidating and - police say - necessary, to protect officers and civilians.

"It won't be used for patrolling. It won't be used for driving down the street," Woodruff explained. "This is purposed strictly for the worst of the worst, when lives are literally on the line."

Woodruff wouldn't discuss the events in Missouri, but it's clear others are.

"I've talked to folks around the country," White said. "Everybody is learning from what is happening in Ferguson. There isn't any question about that."

The government's Law Enforcement Support Office says it has distributed over $5 billion of military equipment to police departments. Weapons account for only five percent of that total. Tactical vehicles, like the ones raising concerns, contribute less than one percent, but that small number appears to be making a big impression.