JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Military gear in the hands of local police – it’s an issue that’s gained national attention lately, especially in the wake of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri this summer.
Eyewitness News went digging for answers and found out how much surplus military equipment is in Rhode Island. We dug through data from the federal government to uncover which police departments have it – and how they’re using it.
Johnston Deputy Police Chief Daniel Parrillo said his town and others are using war gear to protect residents from mother nature and violence, saying violence “can happen in Johnston, it can happen in Providence, it can happen anywhere.”
Towns across the country receive this gear through the 1033 program, which allows for old equipment to be deployed to law enforcement at no cost to taxpayers. Eyewitness News Anchor Mike Montecalvo went straight to the Johnston Police Department, who showed him firsthand how the tactical and surplus pieces their special response team received are being used. Parrillo said “every member of the SRT team is equipped with gas masks and ventilators and every member of the team is equipped with that in case they need to go into a kind of situation where there was some kind of toxic fumes, some kind of gas, any kind of smoke.”
Parrillo said the SWAT team has MP4 rifles, sub-machine guns, and magazines available to them. They also received military-grade binoculars and Hazmat suits, hum-vees, generators to power buildings, and more. All at no cost to taxpayers.
Parrillo also said the town received two robots as part of the 1033, program which ensure the safety of officers before the special response team goes into a house or building. The camera on top of the robot can see the different rooms so officers know what they’re getting into from 100 yards away.
Keeping schools safe is a top priority, according to Parrillo.
Eyewitness News learned that of the 43 law enforcement agencies in Rhode Island, 19 departments have received military gear. Johnston leads the way with more than 2,300 items. Coventry is second at 1,600 items. Foster, East Greenwich and North Kingstown round out the top five.
Not everyone is on board, however. Megan Katatchadourian of the RI ACLU said “this is not Afghanistan and we’re not on the streets of Providence.” The ACLU said they are reviewing and analyzing items to get a better sense of exactly what is here and how it’s being used.
Parrillo said the message is clear: “ I just want them to know that we are prepared. In Johnston we are prepared for any situation and military surplus equipment aids us in that goal – to protect the citizens.”