Thursday, March 28, 2013
7 News Features: War on Crime
We all know our local police officers face some tough situations on the streets of South Florida, but some are questioning a federal program that is allowing officers to be armed like soldiers for a minimal cost. 7's Patrick Fraser takes a look at this War on Crime.
WSVN -- Around the world, the men and women in the U.S. military risk their lives to keep us safe. Armed to the hilt, fighting for America. And now many of those same weapons are at work ... in South Florida.
You have seen it on the news: police departments rolling out the big guns and and big equipment. The weapons made for soldiers to fight wars are being given to police officers patrolling the streets of South Florida.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick, Miami Gardens Police: "As fast as you can pull the trigger you can allow the ammunition to be discharged."
The Miami Gardens Police Department has 100 M16 rifles.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "It's a patrol car rifle. It allows the officers to basically, hopefully get on an even playing field if they have to go against an adversary that is armed with a long range weapon."
Officer Lino Diaz, North Miami Beach Police: "They can stop rifle fire."
The North Miami Beach Police Department has an armored vehicle.
Officer Lino Diaz: "The main purpose of the vehicle is obviously for safety, officer safety."
The police departments of quiet cities like Miami Shores and Sweetwater have M14s. Miami, South Miami and the Monroe County Sheriff's Office all have M16s.
Becky Herrin, Monroe County Sheriff: "This is certainly not something we could afford."
And none of the weapons cost them a dime. They were given to the departments by the United States government through a program called LESO, the military's Law Enforcement Support Office. According to its website, the LESO program has distributed more than $2.6 billion in equipment the U.S. military ordered, but never used.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "These particular weapons that we got from the LESO program were made in 1964, but they're brand-new in the box."
Police departments just have to go to the website, see what's available and make a request. Choose from high-powered rifles and night vision goggles to Humvees, even an airplane for Monroe County.
Becky Herrin: "We acquired the King Air from the Military Surplus Program back in 1996, and we use it primarily for prisoner transport."
It might be free to the police departments, but it's frightening to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Maria Kayanan, ACLU: "When they become more like soldiers than like the traditional officers that patrol our cities, our civil rights and our civil liberties are eroded."
The ACLU says when police departments start using weapons built for battlefields on South Florida streets, it's dangerous.
Maria Kayanan: "When you're talking about using a weapon like that in a heavily populated area, there are going to be lots of casualties and lots of property damage."
In particular, the ACLU looks at the weapons in a city like Doral. Ten M16s, six M14s and an M79 grenade launcher. We wanted to ask them what they needed a grenade launcher in Doral for. The chief never returned our calls.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "I am sorry I didn't find this 30 years ago."
Miami Gardens has put in a request with the LESO program to acquire four grenade launchers. And Sgt. Machurick says it's not for grenades.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "They're classified for the military as grenade launchers, but they are not grenades per se. It's a projectile launcher that would allow us to launch a chemical weapon or a chemical device if we had to."
Maria Kayanan: "I cannot conceive of a situation in which Miami Gardens Police would need to use a grenade launcher."
But police officers will tell you the crooks have military style weapons, and the surplus hardware allows them to keep up.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "I absolutely believe it's a great program."
The program may allow the police to keep up , but across the country some departments can't keep track. So many have lost their military weapons that the Pentagon has temporarily halted the handouts until all the weapons can be accounted for. But when LESO starts handing them out again, the departments will be waiting.
Officer Lino Diaz: "Why are we going to get rid of a perfectly good vehicle? Why not give it to law enforcement? And that's what the LESO program is there for."
But critics say the military should not be arming local police.
Maria Kayanan: "Floridians have a right to live in our communities with law enforcement that doesn't treat our communities like a battlefield."
Police say they have no choice.
Sgt. Gerald Machurick: "If we're the thin blue line that separates society from anarchy, which is basically what the police department is responsible for doing, then I would like to have those tools available to us."
And the question will remain: Do police need to be armed like soldiers to keep the peace in South Florida? I'm Patrick Fraser, 7News.