Small La. police departments packing high-powered, military-grade munitions _lowres

FILE- In this July 16, 2014 file photo, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle sits in front of police headquarters in Watertown, Conn. The L.A. Unified's School District police department received a MRAP vehicle like this one through a federal program. School police departments across the country have taken advantage of free military surplus gear, stocking up on mine resistant vehicles, grenade launchers and scores of M16 rifles. At least 26 school districts across the country participate in the Pentagon’s surplus program, which has come under scrutiny after a militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/The Republican-American, Steven Valenti, File)

In small towns across Louisiana, from Livonia to North Hodge and Iowa to Dixie Inn, police departments made up of only a handful of officers possess high-powered rifles, shotguns and other weaponry no longer useful to the U.S. military.

Police brass usually give similar reasons for obtaining such weapons: Drugs infiltrate even the tiniest of towns. Where there’s a school, there’s the possibility of an “active shooter” situation. And the next high-risk hostage crisis could happen tomorrow.

“Law enforcement is fighting an all-out war against drugs, against criminals,” Livonia Police Chief Brad Joffrion said. “It can happen anywhere, any time. And failure to prepare is preparing for failure.”

But the acquisition of surplus military equipment by law enforcement agencies across the country has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, with roots in the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer. Protests in the city’s streets followed, and a nation watched as local police officers wielding assault rifles and backed by military-style vehicles faced off against protesters. A congressional hearing soon followed. President Barack Obama ordered a review of programs that allow agencies small and large to receive military weapons and other equipment, often decades old, for little to no cost. Legislators have reached across the aisle, in agreement that such programs — most notably the “1033” program — must be reviewed in order to demilitarize local police departments.

Many small-town police chiefs in Louisiana, though, assert that such programs are a blessing. They allow cash-strapped departments to safeguard their communities against almost any imaginable threat on the cheap, because the most lethal weapons often come with the heftiest price tags, law enforcement leaders said.

“We can get weapons, or any kind of surplus item that we need, at a lot cheaper cost than if we had to pay for it brand new or from a factory,” Port Barre Police Chief Deon Boudreaux said. He added later, “I hope we never have to use them. But if we ever do, at least we can say we have something to match up against the bad guys.”

In Louisiana, agencies with the power of arrest and apprehension must apply through the state’s federal property assistance agency to participate in the “1033” program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Defense. The bounty of demilitarized gear available is wide-ranging. It includes weapons such as handguns and grenade launchers, as well as helicopters and mine-resistant, armored trucks.

Approved applicants only pay a handling fee — often about 5 percent of the government’s original acquisition cost of the product — to receive the equipment. The weapons or vehicles themselves are free.

“It allows smaller agencies to obtain equipment that they normally wouldn’t be able to get or afford,” Iowa Police Chief Keith Vincent said.

The Iowa Police Department possesses a few long-range, semi-automatic rifles that it uses mostly for training and drilling ceremonies, Vincent said. The department does not have a SWAT team, and when asked when an officer would need to use a sniper rifle — one of the long-range rifles has a scope — Vincent said, “It would have to be a high-risk, perhaps hostage situation.”

“We would use it if we needed it,” he said. “But, knock on wood, we haven’t needed it yet.”

Like many smaller departments — Iowa is a city of about 3,000 people in Calcasieu Parish — officials in the department’s “1033” application letter cited the need for high-powered weapons to conduct “counter-drug” and “counter-terrorism” work.

In the village of Dixie Inn, where a few police officers patrol a community of about 300 people in Webster Parish just north of Interstate 20, an apparent threat of terrorism exists, too.

“As in most small departments, the officers in our department serve in all aspects of law enforcement, which include counter-drug and counter-terrorism,” then-chief Daniel White wrote in a 2006 application letter to the “1033” program.

When reached by phone, the department’s current chief, James Edwards, declined to comment on when or how he and his officers use their three M16 rifles, saying only that the reasons why could be found in the application letter and in federal crime statistics.

Peter Kraska, a criminal justice scholar at Eastern Kentucky University known as a leading expert on the trend of equipping community law enforcement with military equipment, said the lines began blurring between local police and military back in the 1980s, when America declared a war on drugs.

Weapons like semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and grenade launchers generally do not belong in the hands of local police, Kraska said.

“Those kinds of weapons might be used by criminals, but they shouldn’t be used by the police for one reason: They’re lethal weapons for close-range conflict,” Kraska said, noting how the ammunition has the capability to travel through thick walls and sturdy vehicles, sometimes ricocheting unexpectedly. “They’re weapons of war; they’re not weapons that law enforcement even ought to be using.”

As for the argument that police need high-powered weapons or tanks in case of rare crisis situations, Kraska said the logic doesn’t follow, describing it as “the ultimate security-driven logic.”

Taking the argument to the extreme would require police to use robots during routine traffic stops, because, technically, anything could happen when confronting a random vehicle and its passengers, he said.

“So imagine the stupidity of making public policy on some wild imagined scenario, and not considering the unintended consequence of taking the armaments of war and transferring them to our local police,” Kraska said.

On the contrary, leaders of police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state insist they must be prepared for crisis situations, no matter how seldom they occur.

“We’re not trying to militarize our Sheriff’s Office,” said Austin Daniel, sheriff of West Feliciana Parish. “We’re just trying to prepare for what may happen.”

Although West Feliciana is one of the least populated parishes in the state, with about 15,000 residents, it is home to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and a nuclear power plant in St. Francisville. The presence of the two institutions requires the Sheriff’s Office to prepare for an unusually wide variety of disasters, Daniel said.

As such, the agency has quite the collection of surplus military equipment, including two grenade launchers, numerous high-powered rifles, 12 shotguns and 15 submachine guns, according to the most recent inventory filed with the state in 2012. The agency also possesses multiple helicopters — some for parts — a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, also known as a MRAP, and at least one Hummer, which it once used to take some children home from school when roads were flooded.

Daniel said the agency has never used the grenade launchers, to his knowledge. And although it once in a letter expressed interest in acquiring belt-fed machine guns capable of shooting down airplanes, the agency never actually obtained any such weapons, Daniel said.

In North Hodge, a town of about 400 people in Jackson Parish between Ruston and Alexandria, its police department currently has two pump-action shotguns, a box of night-vision goggles and two long-range rifles. It acquired the equipment after stepping up drug enforcement, said Chief Phillip Moffett, currently the department’s only sworn officer.

However, Moffett said most of the weapons and various other accessories, such as laser sights for some rifles, were ordered by the department’s former assistant chief, Greg Coleman, who in August was arrested and jailed after five women claimed he sexually assaulted them.

Among the equipment obtained by the department was a Hummer that it only kept for about a month, because when it came time to pay the handling fee, the town instead had to take care of a sewage problem, Moffett said.

Moffett didn’t mind. He didn’t need the vehicle anyway, he said, nor does he need most of the weapons he currently has locked up. If he’s re-elected this fall, he wants to get some of those weapons off his hands, he said.

Maki Haberfeld, chair of the department of police science at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said conflicts arise when police departments use high-grade weapons or equipment for the wrong reasons, such as during peaceful protests.

“When you operate in a paramilitary environment, it’s hard to differentiate between the real enemy and people who are members of the public” engaging in civil dissent, Haberfeld said, referencing the activities in Ferguson.

Still, small departments need weapons just like large departments, Haberfeld said, using a similar justification as many police officers: An active shooter situation could happen anywhere, and local police will likely be the first responders.

About a decade ago, at least one department in Louisiana justified the need for semi-automatic rifles by claiming supposedly dangerous sects of people resided in their jurisdiction.

“There is a small Palestinian population in the city,” then-Covington Police Chief Jerry DiFranco wrote in an application for the federal program in 2002. “White supremacist groups are also in our area and are known to be well-armed. The weapons we are requesting will be used to protect our citizens from these groups.”

The department’s current chief, Tim Lentz, said if those people ever presented a threat to the Northshore community, they certainly do not today.

“It’s a sleepy little town,” Lentz said, “and I hope it stays that way.”

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.