State suspends weapons program

Officials pledge new review for powerful guns article page player in wide format.
By Milton J. Valencia and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / June 16, 2009
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The state Department of Public Safety yesterday suspended a controversial program that distributes high-powered US military weapons to police departments across the state, amid growing concerns with the scale of guns handed out and the lack of oversight involved.

Terrel Harris, spokesman for the department, said yesterday that the program will remain suspended until the completion of a thorough review looking at the way it is run, the weapons involved, and the communities that get them.

"We want to see who has what, and if what they have is appropriate," Harris said. "I can't say what we're going to end up doing, but we'll take a top to bottom look at it, to make sure it's running efficiently and effectively."

The suspension, ordered by Governor Deval Patrick, follows a Globe review that shows 82 local police departments in Massachusetts have obtained more than 1,000 military grade weapons over the last 15 years, far more than previously revealed. Under the program, administered by the State Police, departments can apply for equipment declared surplus by the US military.

But a Globe review has found that even the most quiet of hamlets have received high-powered weaponry, including M-16 fully automatic machine guns and M-14 semiautomatic rifles. In West Springfield, police received two military issue, M-79 grenade launchers.

In most cases, the departments obtained the weaponry without any type of community or legislative input.

The review shows that some departments received weapons in excess of federal guidelines. Among the rules for the approval was that no department was supposed to receive more than two rifles for every 10 full-time officers.

Yet records show some departments exceeded that limit. For instance, Marblehead received eight M-16s, even though it has 30 full-time officers.

Meanwhile, the review found the military surplus program lacks follow-up monitoring or oversight. A State Police civilian has been running the program since its lead coordinator, a State Police lieutenant colonel, retired three years ago. In some cases, the state has not enforced requirements that the arms be put to use within a year or returned to the military. And, the state failed to renew its contract with the federal government to oversee distribution of the weapons. Dave Procopio, spokesman for the State Police, said that the staff that runs the surplus program plans to meet with state officials as part of the review, "to perhaps see what changes should be made in the future. It's the beginning of a process . . . to determine how we can make it a more effective program."

He said the contract that expired three years ago was more of a memorandum of understanding between the program coordinator and the federal government on policy rules and regulations. Since the coordinator retired, the civilian employee - who had already been working under the program coordinator - followed the same memorandum. He expects a new memorandum will be forged with the appointment of a new coordinator. Harris said the state review will look at the way the program is being administered and by whom, including whether any certification is needed. It will also include a retroactive look at what communities have received, and whether the awarding of the weapons was appropriate.

"These are military weapons, these are not civilian weapons that we're dealing with," Harris said.

Local police officials have defended their requests for the weapons, citing the need to be prepared for disastrous events that can occur in any city or town, such as the 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School. In Boston, interest grew in the program after terrorists armed with automatic weapons and grenades killed 166 people last November in Mumbai. Police have said that the weapons will be used by specialized units. The grenade launchers in West Springfield, for instance, would be used for shooting tear gas canisters in crowd-control or hostage situations. Any assault rifle used by a patrol commander would be kept in a case in the trunk of a police cruiser.

John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said yesterday that the departments who have received the weapons are trying to emphasize how "helpful, how safe, how worthwhile these weapons are."

"The best weapon you have is the one you never have to use," he said. "Unfortunately, it's become a political issue . . . the time for people to understand that is when we need them the most, and when they won't be available."

In Boston, a proposal to use M-16 rifles, functioning as a semi-automatic weapon, was rejected by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who said the weapon should only be used in specialized units and not in neighborhood patrols. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's police squad shelved plans to use semiautomatic rifles after concerns were raised with providing heavy weaponry to officers who patrol crowded bus and train stations.

State Senator Stephen M. Brewer, vice chairman of the Legislature's joint committee on public safety and homeland security, said yesterday that he would welcome the review.