ATLANTA — Scenes this summer of police in armored vehicles and riot gear launching tear gas on protesters in Ferguson, Mo., have brought increased scrutiny of a federal program that transfers surplus military supplies to local law enforcement agencies.
Georgia colleges and school systems are among those who have taken advantage of the program. Some have acquired refrigerators, firefighting gear and even an electric floor polisher.
Others obtained assault-style rifles better known for their use in combat, spurring calls for limits on the program.
University and school officials, many of them citing past campus shootings at places such as Virginia Tech and Newtown, Conn., have said they need the weapons to protect their students.
The 1033 program, named for a part of the National Defense Authorization Act, has been around since the 1990s and extends to local agencies, including school systems and public state colleges and universities.
In Georgia, a handful of school law enforcement agencies — in three public school districts and at six colleges or universities — have participated in the program, according to data obtained from the Georgia Department of Public Safety. (Emory University’s Police Department received two pair of night-vision goggles but is returning them because the private school is no longer eligible to participate in the program, school officials said.)
Police departments for the Dooly County school system and Fort Valley State University received a mix of supplies, cleaning equipment and wet weather gear. In addition to dozens of ponchos, duffle bags and sleeping bags, Fulton County Schools received two Humvees, which district officials say have been helpful during inclement weather.
Other school systems, including the Bibb County School District, have gotten a collection of combat rifles, such as M-16s and M-14s. Officials from Bibb, which received five M-14 rifles, did not respond to calls for comment.
Last week, leaders from about a dozen national civic and education organizations, including Gwinnett SToPP (Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline) and the NAACP, signed on to a letter asking the Defense Logistics Agency to stop arming school police with military weapons through the program. Also last week, Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of DeKalb County filed the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would limit the program by preventing local agencies from receiving certain weapons such as tanks, flash-bang grenades, rocket launchers and all guns greater than .50-caliber.
“It’s so unfortunate that our society has come to this, that we feel that more militarizing will actually solve a problem. It has yet to do that,” said Marlyn Tillman, a co-founder of Gwinnett SToPP, which opposes stationing police in schools. “We’re turning to a solution that really is the problem.”
But public safety officials in Georgia and across the country say the weapons are needed to protect school campuses and students in case of emergencies, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, when a student killed 32 people.
Officials called the mass shooting a turning point for school safety.
“That caused our Police Department — as well as just about every other police agency around the country — to re-evaluate its training, protocols and preparedness,” said John Lester, a spokesman for Columbus State University. CSU police received three M-16s, records show. The weapons were part of Columbus State’s “active shooter” preparedness efforts, Lester said. “Fortunately,” he said, “we have never had to use them.”
The benefit of the program is that it allows campus departments to have weapons that have already been widely used by law enforcement agencies, Kennesaw State Police Chief Roger Stearns said. For years, the bad guys had been better armed than police, he said.
KSU received four M-16s and two M-14s through the program. The six rifles are assigned to officers who have completed 30-plus hours in rifle training.
“We have more than 25,000 students, then add faculty and staff … a university is a small city,” Stearns said. “We have a responsibility to provide the same level of protection as that provided by any other city.”
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