FRANKFORT — The Shelbyville Police Department received a call in February about a man who had barricaded himself inside his home.
When officers arrived, the man opened fire on police and the neighborhood, shooting more than 200 rounds from a high-powered rifle, Rick Sanders, president of Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, said Wednesday during a hearing with state lawmakers, critics and advocates of a program that supplies law enforcement agencies with military issued weapons.
Sanders, chief of the Jeffersontown Police Department, told lawmakers that officers need military-style weapons, and he explained how they used them. He painted an image of how the weapons can be used effectively, and the shooting in Shelbyville was the most recent example.
In that case, he said, the department of 24 officers requested assistance from Kentucky State Police's Special Weapons and Tactics unit. Troopers arrived in an armored vehicle, which the assailant shot 10 to 20 times, including three times in the windshield. The armored vehicle gave the troopers the protection they needed to shoot and kill the man. Without the vehicle, officers would have died, Sanders said.
Questions about how local police agencies use military-style weapons surfaced after a black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed last month by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo. Officers responded to protests and riots using military-style weapons against civilians.
Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, said the hearing was called so members of the House Local Government Committee could get a better understanding of how the use of military-style equipment affects local agencies and the communities they serve.
"There is interest in how we better manage the militarization, because most people would say there's cases and instances, even though they are not very regular, they have to be prepared for a horrible outcome ... they have to be prepared for a bad guy armed to the teeth," said Riggs, co-chairman of the committee. "There is also a lot of concern about its application of the equipment, and there's not enough training for folks doing military style work."
Law enforcement agencies in Kentucky have equipped themselves with military issued equipment — including rifles, helicopters, Humvees and ammunition — for years. Many of them have received items through the Department of Defense's 1033 program, which provides refurbished military equipment for free or a discounted price.
In the past 10 years, the 1033 program has provided local police agencies with 33,000 military weapons and supplies, a value of more than $44 million. The agencies have acquired everything from blankets and desks to helicopters and utility trucks, according to documents from the Kentucky State Police obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open records request.
On Wednesday, the Local Government Committee heard from Sanders and Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter Kraska, who was in Washington, D.C., this month to testify before Congress regarding the militarization of police.
Kraska, who heads the graduate program in EKU's School of Justice and wrote Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces, said the role and appearance of a militarized police force started during the 1980s in an effort to curb the war on drugs. However, Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, went from being used for fighting the war on drugs to bursting into the homes of citizens during raids that resulted in very few arrests and useless tragedies, he said. Kraska told the committee there have been about 250 SWAT tragedies, all of which have been documented.
He said the weapons have been abused and used inappropriately. There needs to be a clear line between U.S. military forces and civilian police forces, Kraska said.
"Right now any local police department who's halfway decent at writing an application can receive a $325,000 armored personnel carrier for free," he said. "Obviously, in active shooter situations that we've had happen in recent American history, you need a competent, very well-trained and, indeed, well-armed unit to handle those kind of circumstances."
Kraska said that's not how these weapons are being used. He said those types of shootings don't happen in most communities.
"At the local level what we've seen is a massive growth of these type of teams, and this kind of weaponry and this kind of military-style focus, yet there's very little to do with it," he said.
Controlling the situation
Some members of the committee said that this issue is one that needs to be figured out on the local level.
Riggs pointed out that Whitley and Simpson counties have received more rifles than they have police officers.
Kentucky State Police, which has a large military equipment surplus, has received hundreds of M16 and M14 rifles, each valued at $499 and $138, respectively. It has also received two aircrafts valued at $3 million, helicopters, blankets, generators, tools, utility trucks, four-wheel vehicles, staplers and tools, according to documents.
The police department of Owensboro, with a city population of about 58,000, has a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle.
Regardless of how it looks, law enforcement officials say it's better to have the weapons, because they serve a greater purpose than what was seen in Ferguson, Mo.
Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said the department uses the two helicopters they received through the 1033 program to search for suspects and missing people, and to aid other counties when needed. Only one helicopter currently works.
The department also owns a BearCat, an armored vehicle used to aid the Emergency Response Unit. The department did not use the program to acquire the BearCat, but it is used for barricade situations and suicide calls.
Lexington's ERU unit was called out 24 times from Feb. 5, 2013 to July 9, 2014, according to documents.
"Ask yourself these questions. If a maniac is shooting up a Lexington school, if a madman, armed with an AK-47, is holding hostages in a downtown bank, or domestic terrorists are hunting and killing people in a popular shopping center, who do you want to have the best equipment to control the situation — the criminals or the police?" Roberts said.
Roberts was not in Frankfort on Wednesday, but her comments were similar to those of Sanders and others who say there is a proper way for local agencies to use military equipment.
Sanders, whose department has received a large amount of equipment from the 1033 program, said they have used two Humvees to transport the elderly. But he says agencies should be held accountable for using military-style weapons inappropriately.
"We don't hear about the 98 percent of the time when police do a great job," he said during Wednesday's testimony. "We're here to talk about one or two or several occasions where a police officer has acted improperly or misused equipment. My answer to that is to hold those people responsible. If they are using the equipment improperly, hold them accountable. But don't handcuff every police officer out there today trying to save your life and my life ... I worry about my officers going home at night, and whatever equipment I can use to keep them safe, I'm going to use."