What kind of combat weapons do my local cops have?
That’s what people around the country have been asking as images and videos of a heavily armed police force responding to protests and riots over the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri over the last two weeks sparked criticism of the militarization of law enforcement agencies.
Agencies in Charlottesville and Albemarle have quite a few hand-me-downs from the Department of Defense: a total of 146 military assault rifles, a number of military pistols and shotguns, 40 sets of night vision goggles, and an armored truck. But despite the fact that local officials say the items are carefully counted in regular audits, the federal agency that disbursed the equipment was unable to explain discrepancies in their records when it came to where the combat gear ended up.
In Virginia, local law enforcement agencies can apply for free surplus military equipment through an arm of the DOD called the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The 1033 Program, as it’s known, is administered by the Virginia State Police and gives local departments access to “vehicles, weapons, computer equipment, body armor, fingerprint equipment, night vision equipment, radios and televisions, tents and sleeping bags, photographic equipment, various clothing items, and more.”
A document released late last week by the DLA in response to a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests by reporters across the Commonwealth shows all the equipment disbursed in Virginia by municipality since 2006. Aggregating the data by city and county and not listing individual agencies was “a matter of security,” according to DLA spokeswoman Mimi Schirmacher.
But the DLA’s numbers don’t square with local law enforcement reports.
The DLA’s records show agencies in the city of Charlottesville have acquired 40 sets of night vision equipment, 134 5.56 millimeter automatic rifles, 12 7.6 millimeter automatic rifles, nine pistols, 11 shotguns, and an armored truck.
But Charlottesville Police Captain Gary Pleasants, who administers the 1033 program for the city police, said those numbers are wrong. His department does have 26 rifles—14 of them 5.56 millimeter, another dozen 7.6 millimeter—all of them modified to be semi-automatic. They also have all the reported pistols and shotguns. They gave the armored truck to Albemarle “years ago,” Pleasants said.
Albemarle is listed in the DLA document as having just two assault rifles. In fact, said Albemarle Police spokeswoman Carter Johnson, the department there has 103 of them—and they ended up with the night vision goggles, too. Scottsville Police Chief Robert Layman said his tiny department has two rifles. Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding said his office has five, and another 12 are in the hands of the UVA Police Department, according to Lt. Melissa Fielding there.
Schirmacher said the DLA was looking into why guns and other equipment it says went to Charlottesville were sent to four other agencies in another municipality.
Local officials said that the DLA requires them to conduct meticulous and regular audits of all surplus military equipment they’ve received, including taking photos of the serial numbers of guns. But agencies approach the use of the weapons differently.
Pleasants said city police have never fired the guns acquired from the feds outside of training.
“These are items we hopefully never need to use,” Pleasants said of the 46 military weapons the department owns, “but if we need them, they’re invaluable.” He said the use of automatic weapons in bank robberies and school shootings led to a sense that police needed to have access to the same kind of firepower. A standard-issue handgun is “not very good in a long hall of a school, if need be,” he said.
“We have tight controls on them,” Pleasants said of the military weapons. “They’re not everyday equipment that someone carries around with them. They have special purposes, and there are policies and procedures for them.”
UVA’s Lieutenant Fielding said each of her department’s weapons is assigned to a specific officer who gets a pre-screening and is provided with ongoing training and performance reviews.
Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding keeps his office’s five fully automatic assault rifles locked in a safe, and his deputies have never trained with them.
“I haven’t even taken them out and shot them,” he said. “I got them because I thought they’d be a good thing to have if the grid goes down and chaos ensues.”
Harding said he’s actually considering giving them back to the government because regularly documenting them for the DLA has become a hassle. “They wear us out,” he said.