State tightens rules on weapons

Revamps program supplying military surplus to police

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

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The state is planning to restart a controversial federal program that supplied local police departments with surplus military weapons, saying it is beefing up restrictions to prevent law enforcement agencies from acquiring caches of exotic arms.

Governor Deval Patrick had suspended the program in June after a Globe review found that police in some towns were receiving large numbers of weapons without the knowledge of civilian leaders and that, in some cases, they had purchased armaments such as grenade launchers and fully automatic M-16 rifles.

Under new rules detailed by state officials this week, police departments will not be allowed to acquire weapons not typically used in local law enforcement, and they will be required to get permission from local civilian leaders before receiving weapons under the program.

“If you’re trying to buy a shoulder-fired missile launcher, you’re not going to get it through this program,’’ said Kurt N. Schwartz, the state’s undersecretary for law enforcement.

Schwartz said Patrick is expected this week to order the head of the State Police to take over the program and set up new procedures to enforce the rules.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who last year rejected city police plans to distribute as many as 200 M-16s to patrol officers, said he is standing by his decision, even though the state is restarting the program. Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said the mayor will not sign off on gun orders under the progam unless the weapons are deployed only to specialized units, such as the SWAT team and bomb squad.

“He has made it very clear that he would not like to see patrol officers with these weapons,’’ Joyce said.

Patrick shut down the program after the Globe reported that 82 local police departments, including those at some state colleges, had received 1,068 weapons during the previous 15 years, including 486 fully automatic M-16 machine guns and 564 M-14 semi-automatic rifles, many without community knowledge. And the state failed to ensure they were handed out and deployed within federal regulations for the surplus program.

For example, the regulations prohibit cermonial uses of the weapons and require that they be put into use within a year or returned to the military. But campus police at Salem State College said they ordered two M-14s for color guard ceremonies, Wellfleet police haven’t used three M-14s since receiving them in 1999, and West Springfield police also haven’t deployed two M74 grenade launchers received in 1996.

The regulations also limit the number of weapons distributed under the program to one high-powered rifle for every 10 sworn officers. But the state had allowed some departments to receive more than that, including campus police at Bridgewater State College, which has 21 full-time officers but received six M-16s, and Marblehead police, which received eight M-16s, even though it has 30 full-time officers. State public safety officials said their six-month review of the program confirmed the newspaper’s findings. “Going forward we are going to keep track of and abide by all the federal regulations,’’ Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that during the review, all the police departments that had received weapons told state public safety officials that they now plan to deploy them, and only for approved uses. He said Salem State said it will use the guns for “tactical purposes,’’ West Springfield plans to retrofit its grenade launchers to fire tear gas canisters in crowd control or hostage situations, and Wellfleet and others that had mothballed arms now plan to get the guns out of storage.

The state does not plan to confiscate the weapons that were given out in excess of federal allowances, Schwartz said.

But if local departments don’t do what they say and put them to proper use within a year, they will have to return them. “We have told them to deploy or get rid of them, according to the regulations,’’ he said.

The military surplus program began in the 1990s and has provided weapons free of charge to local police departments across the country, which pay only shipping costs. Weapons are deemed surplus when the military phases them out in favor of newer equipment, according to the agency that oversees the program, the US Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service.

Service spokesman Ken MacNevin said federal officials depend on state coordinators to certify communities’ need for the rifles and to oversee their distribution and adherence to program guidelines.

Before Massachusetts can begin handing out the miltary-grade weapons again, the state will have to forge a new memorandum of agreement with the federal government, MacNevin said. The previous agreement expired in 2006.

Some previous critics of the program said they are pleased with the new safeguards, particularly the required notification of civilian leaders.

“At the local level, it’s great because they can be held liable if the community has issues,’’ said Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project RIGHT, which runs violence prevention programs in Roxbury. But Martinez still has reservations. “I’m still a little bit hesitant to support something like that,’’ he said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at