A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 13. The federal program that armed the St. Louis County Police Department has also sent automatic rifles to police departments across Alaska.
Story last updated at 8/27/2014 - 7:54 pm
Armored cars, automatic rifles, gas masks and grenade launchers.
This is not Iraq. This is Ferguson, Missouri. It's also Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Kodiak.
For the past two weeks, Alaskans have watched scenes of disorder and chaos in a small town outside St. Louis. Heavily armed police have confronted peaceful and violent protesters alike, raising a significant question: Are our police becoming too militarized?
Alaska is a world away from St. Louis in both geography and climate, yet the Capital City Weekly has learned that the same federal program that armed police in Ferguson has sent automatic weapons to police departments across Alaska.
According to federal records, the '1033 program' run by the Department of Defense sent 14 automatic rifles to Juneau, four to Ketchikan, 15 to Fairbanks, four to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, five to Kodiak and 123 to Anchorage.
The database does not distinguish whether the weapons were distributed to a particular police department, government agency or the Alaska State Troopers. It lists the weapons in similar vague terms: "Rifle: 5.56 millimeter" or "Rifle: 7.62 millimeter" and it does not state whether the weapons are bound for special teams or ordinary patrol officers.
Alan Bengaard has been a member of the Ketchikan Police Department since 1988 and chief since 2011. His attitude toward his department's automatic weapons is clear-cut: "We have these M-16s; my personal opinion is they don't have a place in law enforcement."
According to the federal database, Ketchikan received its four M-16s sometime in 2006, before Bengaard's time as chief. "We really don't have a use in law enforcement for them," he said. "Honestly, we're looking at sending them back to the state, since we're tired of accounting for them."
In February 1997, two heavily armed bank robbers used automatic weapons in a daring attempt to rob a bank in Los Angeles. The resulting shootout became known as the North Hollywood shootout.
Most of the LAPD was outgunned by the robbers, who wore military-grade body armor and wielded high-powered rifles. The robbers were killed, but not before more than 1,700 rounds were fired by both sides and 18 people were injured.
Six months before the attack, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997. Within that act was Section 1033, which created a program to transfer surplus weapons and equipment to police.
"I think it was one of the turning points in the situation," said Lt. David Campbell, a spokesman for the Juneau Police Department, about the North Hollywood shootout.
After the shootout, and again after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, police departments began equipping for a new worst-case scenario, something that might require heavy weapons and armor.
"The reason why there has been this push is because law enforcement has seen a steady increase in the arming of the general population, and how do we respond?" Campbell said.
Since its inception, the 1033 program has transferred $5.1 billion in equipment and weapons to more than 8,000 police departments across the country. In 2013 alone, more than $449 million in equipment has been given to police departments, according to statistics from the program.
Only 5 percent of this equipment is weaponry - most of the items in the federal database for Alaska aren't weapons: "Jacket, Cold Weather" and "Mitten Set, Extreme" read two of the listings for items given to Anchorage in 2011 and 2012.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that President Obama has ordered a review of the 1033 program and others that send military equipment to police departments. Mittens undoubtedly will be low on his priority list.
On April 17, 1979, Juneau police officers Jimmy Kennedy and Rick Adair responded to a 911 call. At 1724 Evergreen Avenue, a man had fired several rifle shots at a passing vehicle, then barricaded himself inside his home. As Kennedy and Adair approached the house, the man opened fire on their police car, killing both.
In the siege that followed, one other officer was injured before the man turned a handgun on himself.
The event was Juneau's equivalent to the North Hollywood shootout and sparked the creation of a SWAT team. Today, Juneau's SWAT team is the only one in Southeast Alaska. "It's pretty unusual for a department our size to have teams (the department also has hostage negotiation and bomb disposal specialists) like this, but we have them basically because of our geographic isolation and the fact that we are the capital," Campbell said.
It has been more than two years since the SWAT team was called into serious action. "In my memory, this is the longest stretch of time we've had without a SWAT callout," said Campbell.
"A callout is if something happens and a first responder/patrol officer ... finds themselves in a situation that's beyond their capacities," he said. That might include a hostage situation, a suicidal person or a person armed and barricaded inside a home.
The SWAT team has made other appearances as well. In recent years, the SWAT team has been deployed when police need to execute a search or arrest warrant and there's a reasonable chance that a suspect might react violently.
In April, the SWAT team deployed as police raided a home on Lemon Creek Road, seizing drugs and guns and arresting a suspected drug dealer.
Campbell said he doesn't have statistics on the number of times the SWAT team has deployed for a search or arrest warrant, but he believes it happens only a few times per year.
He added that controversial no-knock warrants, in which police do not announce themselves before entering a home, are almost unheard of in Juneau. "In the 19 years that I've been here ... I don't think I've ever done a no-knock warrant," he said.
The police department's automatic weapons are solely in the hands of its SWAT-trained officers, he said. Ordinary officers patrol with their sidearm and (if they're in a car) a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle.
Because Juneau doesn't have a full-time SWAT team, its SWAT-trained officers are ordinary officers with special training. They do regular patrols and police work - and they take their M-16s with them. The semiautomatic rifle on patrol is substituted for its automatic equivalent.
"If a patrol officer is a SWAT member, the rifle he's going to use is his M-16 because that's what he's been trained with," Campbell said.
LIFE WITHOUT SWAT
Unlike Juneau, neither Sitka nor Ketchikan have a SWAT team, and no officer on either department goes on patrol with an automatic weapon.
"We train all of our guys as generalists," explained Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt. "We're just handling it with our patrol officers."
When a SWAT-type call comes in, once or twice a year, "we'll bring in extra people. That's it. We'll bring in extra people to be able to overwhelm any potential incident."
Asked whether he thinks his department is safe in that regard, he had a simple answer: "Yes. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I feel like we can do it safely."
Even if he felt differently, he doesn't think Sitka could afford the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to equip and train a SWAT team. For his department, it's a balancing act between budget and risk. "There's maybe one or two annual events with somebody with a gun," he said. "They just don't happen that often."
In Ketchikan, chief Bengaard issues his patrol staff semiautomatic rifles, not the four M-16s his department owns. "There's a big difference where you pull the trigger and one round's fired and when you pull the trigger and a whole magazine is," he said.
Ketchikan also used the 1033 program to obtain night vision equipment, but it didn't work in urban Ketchikan, so the department returned them. "At the end of the 90s, early 2000s, especially after 9/11, it became especially common to get a bunch of 1033 offerings from the Department of Defense," Bengaard said.
In his 26 years in Ketchikan, both the call volumes and types of calls have changed, he said. He sees less violent crime in Ketchikan, but there's new dangers, too - school shooters, for one.
His department runs "active shooter" drills with Kayhi and the University of Alaska Southeast. "We also do training for warrant entry and building entry," he said.
If worse turned to worse, Ketchikan and Sitka could call on the Juneau SWAT team or the Alaska State Troopers' team in Anchorage. Either would take hours to respond, however.
"We're definitely isolated," Schmitt said. "You pray you don't have those type of incidents, and if you do, you're going to do the best that you can."
WEATHER AND CLIMATE
This last winter, the Juneau Police Department went looking for an armored car.
Rather than try to buy one - Juneau is facing a multimillion-dollar budget crunch - it decided to see if it could borrow one. Police officers traveled to Juneau's National Guard armory, toured the facilities, tested the equipment, and were politely declined.
"We went, took a tour of the facility ... but at this point, we're not able to use it," Campbell said.
Under federal law, the National Guard may not participate in police action unless under the command of the governor of a state.
That happened in Ferguson. It hasn't happened in Juneau.
Campbell explained that Juneau's police want to be ready for a worst-case scenario. "If an officer gets hurt and they're pinned down, how do we safely get to them and rescue them?" he asked. "If we had an armored car, wouldn't it be nice to be able to drive?"
Overall, violent crime in Alaska - and the United States as a whole - is on the decline. According to the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the total violent arrest rate in Alaska declined each year from 2009 to 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.
The rate of violent crime has also declined during the same period. Why then have police continued to pursue greater firepower?
Campbell compares it to the difference between climate and weather. The world's climate is warming, but that doesn't mean there can't be a cold day here and there.
Violent crime is waning, but "that doesn't mean there aren't people who aren't highly motivated, who are very, very well armed," Campbell said.
As Juneau, the state of Alaska and the United States prepare to face tough budget decisions, local officials will have to made a decision of their own: Where should police departments draw the line of preparedness?
"Is the difference between having an armored vehicle and not having an armored vehicle a human life?" Campbell asked. "If it is, I hope it ain't my life or one of the people I work with."