Even small localities got big guns

Some regulations for police unenforced article page player in wide format.
By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / June 15, 2009
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Police in Wellfleet, a community known for stunning beaches and succulent oysters, scored three military assault rifles. At Salem State College, where recent police calls have included false fire alarms and a goat roaming the campus, school police got two M-16s. In West Springfield, police acquired even more powerful weaponry: two military-issue M-79 grenade launchers.

Some 82 local police departments in Massachusetts have obtained more than 1,000 weapons over the last 15 years under a federal program that distributes surplus guns from the US military, the Globe reported earlier this month. Now, new information identifies which communities received the weapons: They range from small towns like Hamilton, Marblehead, and Wayland to more populous communities like Worcester, Framingham, and Revere.

And a Globe review of a dozen departments found that most did not notify their community of the acquisitions. It also found inconsistencies in how the program is monitored, including cases in which communities received more guns than allowed.

In one suburban town, Belmont, people who live and work there were surprised to learn of the presence of six M-14s.

"Is this a war zone?" said Kevin M. Mullins, 25, who works at a Belmont bookshop. "For what logical purpose do they need semiautomatic rifles in Belmont?"

But many of the departments said they were taking advantage of free weaponry in the event they might need it to ward off terrorists or stop a shooting rampage.

"You never know what's going to happen. Anything can happen, anywhere," said Mark Laverdure, the police chief in Clinton, a town on the Wachusett Reservoir in Central Massachusetts that ordered 18 assault rifles from the government earlier this year.

"You're in a small town, you're working with one or two officers, all it would take is one emotionally disturbed person with a deer rifle" to create a violent crisis, said Wellfleet Police Chief Richard P. Rosenthal, whose department received three surplus M-14s but then shelved them and bought lighter-weight M-4s for its officers. "The only thing we would have had is a shotgun."

Federal officials say none of the weapons have been reported stolen or used in a crime. But Ken MacNevin, spokesman for the US Defense Reutilization & Marketing Service, said the agency still expects the state to strictly adhere to federal regulations.

A spokesman for the State Police, which is charged with overseeing the program in Massachusetts, said the department generally follows program rules, conducting regular audits to make sure the weapons haven't gone missing and ensuring the guns are properly registered. But the spokesman, David Procopio, said the department also trusts local law enforcement agencies to follow the rules on their own.

"Our expectation is that local departments who tell us they know what the regulations are are indeed following them," he said. "If we receive information that a local agency is not in compliance, we will look into that."

According to the Globe review, some departments got more arms than federal regulations allow. 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 also failed to renew its contract with the federal government to oversee distribution of the weapons, after its lead coordinator retired three years ago.

Governor Deval Patrick's administration said it launched a review of the program after the Globe inquiries.

"The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security is reviewing the state's role in this program to ensure effective and appropriate oversight is being applied," said Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the agency.

Procopio said a civilian employee has been overseeing the program since the lead coordinator, a State Police lieutenant colonel, retired. He said the department expects to have a new oversight contract with the federal government signed in the near future.

The US military surplus program has provided 1,068 weapons to police departments in Massachusetts since 1994, including 486 fully automatic M-16 machine guns and 564 M-14 semiautomatic rifles, according to records withheld by State Police but later provided by the Defense Reutilization & Marketing Service. Most of the M-16s have been modified to perform like semiautomatic rifles, firing only one bullet at a time, instead of rapidly spraying rounds.

Many local police officials said they ordered the weapons to prepare for a catastrophic event like the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, when two teens used automatic weapons to gun down students, and a bank robbery in Los Angeles in 1997 when two robbers with automatic rifles injured 10 police officers in a shootout. More recently, terrorists armed with automatic weapons and grenades killed 166 people in Mumbai last November.

"We really see this as an essential tool that we have that allows us to respond to that kind of incident," Bridgewater State College Police Chief David Tillinghast said.

Some police chiefs said the price tag - or lack thereof - also influenced their decisions. "With budgets the way they are, any time we can get something with no dollar signs attached to it, we have to take a long, hard look at it," said Wayland Police Chief Robert Irving, whose department ordered three M-16s in February.

Departments are deploying the weapons in various ways. Some equipped only specialized SWAT officers with the rifles. Some issued them to patrol officers who keep them locked in cruisers. Others keep the weapons locked in stations, ready for distribution in emergencies.

Under the program, the local police departments sent applications for the weapons to the State Police, which then approved them and sent them to federal officials for processing and shipment. Among the rules for approval: No department was supposed to receive more than two rifles for every 10 full-time, sworn officers.

But records show some departments exceeded that limit. School police at Bridgewater State College have 21 full-time officers but received six M-16s. Marblehead received eight M-16s, even though it has 30 full-time officers. Wellfleet's 13-member department got three M-14s.

After the weapons were shipped, State Police were supposed to conduct regular checks to ensure they were used.

But some communities said they haven't used the weapons since they got them. In West Springfield, the grenade launchers that police initially ordered to shoot tear gas canisters in crowd-control or hostage situations have been mothballed in an armory for more than a decade, and officers there are no longer trained to use them. Wellfleet's M-14s have also been shelved since the town received them. Wellfleet Chief Rosenthal called them "fine pieces of machinery" but said the rifles, which he got in 1999, couldn't be fitted for the type of sights he wanted, so he just stored them.

"Now I've got three albatrosses," said Rosenthal, who decided instead to buy new semiautomatic rifles that his officers keep in hard cases, in cruiser trunks.

One department said it never planned to use the weapons for law enforcement in the first place. At Salem State College, Police Chief William G. Anglin said the two M-16s he ordered earlier this year were for his color guard to carry during ceremonies. He said they aren't loaded - no bullets in the chamber or high-capacity clips. "I couldn't use those rifles out on the street," Anglin said. "They're just ceremonial weapons."

A random survey of 12 departments found none had notified the public, even though some have armed regular patrol officers with the rifles. One chief, in Belchertown, said he did tell the town's Board of Selectmen when he got four M-16s from the military in 2003 and when he equipped patrol cars with semiautomatic rifles he purchased from a manufacturer.

In Framingham, Lieutenant Paul Shastany likened community involvement in arms decisions to public involvement in hospitals' decisions on what type and how many heart stents to buy.

"That decision belongs with police officials, not the public," said Shastany, whose department received16 M-16s in 1997.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian A. Kyes said that after a public outcry in recent weeks about similar plans in Boston and at the MBTA, he decided to inform the public before he deploys the 18 M-16s the department ordered in March.

"Now that this has occurred, I think it would be an important step for us," Kyes said. "If the community is strongly against this, we're going to have to reevaluate."

Globe correspondent Nandini Jayakrishna contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at