- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Law enforcement agencies in Nevada have accumulated $11.8 million worth of military gear from the Pentagon through a surplus program that has come under increasing scrutiny since the police response to protests over an officer’s killing of an unarmed Missouri teenager.

Since 1997, Nevada police officers, sheriffs and game wardens have obtained about 300 semi-automatic rifles, half a dozen mine-resistant and armored vehicles, three helicopters, a pair of grenade launchers and a bayonet, among other things, according to Defense Department records.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee will review the program to determine whether the surplus is being used as intended to combat gangs and violent crime. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., this week introduced legislation aimed at curbing what Johnson described as an increasing militarization of police across the country.

“It is mind-boggling why police departments in Nevada and across the country need some of this military assault equipment like anti-mine vehicles and grenade launchers,” said Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “It sends the wrong message to act in a militaristic way when policing is about serving and protecting communities, not assaulting them.”

Washoe County sheriff’s spokesman Bob Harmon said the Huey helicopter worth nearly $1 million they obtained in 1997 has helped save many lives during search and rescue, and firefighting missions. Las Vegas Metro police secured the other two Hueys the same year.

“It’s really the poster child for how we’ve benefited from the program,” Harmon said Thursday. He said the bayonet is actually a Buck M9 knife with wire-cutter capabilities. “We don’t actually use it as a bayonet even though it’s classified as a bayonet.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Capt. Dan Britton said they couldn’t have otherwise afforded the $244,844 armored personnel carrier they use in extreme situations, like a 2005 standoff with a gunman.

“That thing was really worth its weight in gold that day,” Britton said. “We had one officer wounded and a bunch of guys pinned down by the gunfire. It was in a mobile home park, and the AK-47 he was using would rip through anything we tried to hide behind.”

Britton said they use the grenade launchers to fire tear gas and smoke bombs, not grenades.

Most of the weapons go to metropolitan areas, but Nye County has 22 M16s and five M14s. Lincoln, Humbolt and Lander counties also secured semi-automatic rifles through the program, and Mesquite police have more than 30. The Nevada Department of Agriculture has a dozen .45 caliber pistols, and the Department of Wildlife has eight M16s.

Police in Elko, Mesquite and Winnemucca and deputies in Carson City and Lyon County are utilizing the mine-resistant vehicles valued between $658,000 and $733,000 each.

Not all of the goods are guns. In addition to 85 M16s, Washoe County deputies have obtained six folding chairs, two space heaters, a tent and a coffee maker. Carson City deputies received eyewash equipment, generators, bandages, duffel bags and a sleeping bag. Elko police received no guns but got a dozen pairs of night-vision goggles and cold-weather clothing including mittens, parkas, boots and overalls.

The ACLU is most critical of arming school police with assault weapons. Washoe County school police have eight M16s - the only district in the state utilizing the program.

“I don’t see why a school district police officer would need a military assault rifle for any reason,” Story said.

School district police most recently deployed the rifles last fall in response to a deadly shooting at Sparks Middle School.

“Unfortunately, society is becoming increasingly more violent, and criminals are more resistant to standard police practices,” Interim School Police Chief Jason Trevino said Thursday. “Our officers don’t carry them walking down school hallways as a normal routine. It’s a specialized tool we use in situations that call for it.”

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