MANATEE -- As communities across the nation have watched in shock as civil unrest unfolded after a young, unarmed, black man was shot to death by a white police officer in Missouri, critics are questioning the militarization of local law enforcement and residents are wondering if the violence could happen in their own backyard.
Michael Brown, 18, was shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. Riots erupted and police officers responded in armored vehicles through the streets of the St. Louis suburb, launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, residents and even the media.
In Manatee County, law enforcement is armed and trained with an arsenal that includes assault rifles, armored vehicles, submachine guns, tear gas, rubber pellets, grenades and grenade launchers. But top officials defend that arsenal, saying the criminals are armed with some of the most powerful weapons available.
"We have an armored vehicle because when we go to a high-risk situation, search-warrant execution, I am not going to put my personnel in danger if they can approach this situation in an armored vehicle before exposing themselves," Manatee County Sher
iff Brad Steube said. "I learned a long time ago that the bad guys have bigger guns than we do. We try to arm ourselves to have the same amount of force -- if not more."
In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense created a program for local and state law enforcement to acquire surplus military equipment with the intent of the gear being used to combat the war on drugs, counter-terrorism and an increase officer safety.
Included in the program are assault rifles, armored vehicles, night-vision equipment, body armor, grenade launchers and aircraft.
Following a withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan, the surplus and transfer of weapons and equipment grew exponentially.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office is among the overwhelming number of agencies who have taken advantage of the program.
As a result, its arsenal includes one former military helicopter and 144 semi-automatic M-16s. Sheriff's deputies also are equipped with an armored vehicle, submachine guns, tear gas and other equipment to be used by train members of the SWAT, Tactical Apprehension and Control Team, or Special Response teams.
History, Steube said, also has taught him the importance of officers being properly armed. Steube pointed to a shooting in 1997 in North Hollywood, Calif., where officers responded to a bank robbery equipped only with shotguns and 9 mm pistols. Two gunmen sprayed a rain of armor-piercing bullets from automatic rifles.
To counter, officers were forced to go to a nearby gun shop and take more powerful weapons and ammunition.
"As a result of incidents like that, I think it is prudent for law enforcement to have weapons so, when we arrive at a scene, we are not at a disadvantage," Steube said. "We have tear gas and we have non-lethal weapons, and they are deployed in situations where we feel necessary."
In April, Manatee deputies found themselves in a shoot-out with a bank-robbery suspect that resulted in an officer being injured. Lt. Robert Mealy was shot in the arm and has since recovered.
Although the department issues rifles to deputies, no one on the scene that day had one or had it readily available, according to Steube. There is no way to know how events would have unfolded if the rifles had been available.
Citizens' opinions on whether law enforcement should have military equipment often change if they become a victim, Steube said.
"People have a different position when they are the victim, and law enforcement doesn't get there in time, or gets there and doesn't have the proper equipment," Steube said.
In the weeks since Brown's death, many civil rights leaders nationwide have voiced their opposition to local law-enforcement agencies having military firepower and gear.
Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida, said he has been aware for quite some time that law enforcement has been acquiring military equipment through the Defense Department's surplus program.
He said he disagrees with the justifications.
"They have created ways of why they need this," Barfield said. "I think it's just a cover for police officers getting their hands on sexy, military equipment that has no practical use."
He dismissed one of the biggest reasons given by local agencies in Florida: natural disasters.
"When we have natural disaster, we have a professional, well-trained National Guard and FEMA to respond to that," Barfield said.
The militarization of the police has gone beyond weapons and equipment, he contended.
Until a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, agencies across the country -- including the Sarasota Police Department -- were utilizing "sting-rays": a device that mimics a cell phone tower and can be used to track people.
In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled their use unconstitutional without a warrant.
The violent events in Ferguson have served to further convince many such as Barfield that law enforcement agencies have become too militarized.
"When a local police department, that is at the central of the controversy, uses that type of equipment, I think it escalates the situation rather than neutralizes it," Barfield said. "The question has to be asked if they are providing a false sense of security at the expense of significant losses of our constitutional right to privacy."
But while he said he has been aware of local agencies acquiring and using equipment designed for the military, he thinks even the most well-informed resident has been unaware this federal-surplus program exists.
"I think the average citizen is so busy surfing the Internet, watching 'American Idol' and engaged in activities that simulate reality, to the point that it almost becomes like an anesthetic," Barfield said. "And they are completely unaware that 'Big Brother' has not only arrived, but (also) is deeply encroached. There is no longer an expectation of privacy."
What are options?
Law enforcement is not just relying on the federal program.
Some agencies, including the Bradenton Police Department, have opted not to obtain any equipment through the surplus program, Deputy Chief Warren Merriman said.
The department, instead, has a SWAT team that regularly trains and is equipped with an armored vehicle, smoke, tear and OCD canisters (flash-bangs), sniper rifles, long rifles, rubber pellets, grenades and a grenade launcher. Like the sheriff's office, Bradenton police take their BearCat armored vehicle out regularly. It's all about officer safety, according to Lt. James Racky, SWAT team leader and the Detective Division lieutenant.
"We don't do a search warrant without it," Racky said. "If we roll up to any situation with this, I am confident we are fine until we get out and expose ourselves."
Everything on the vehicle is bulletproof except the tires, but they will run when flat, he said. The vehicle has its own air system in the event of a chemical attack. It allows SWAT team members to connect to the vehicle's system and not use up their oz=xygen tanks.
The team regularly trains for various scenarios, including crowd control and riot training.
The department also has 16 long rifles that are issued to supervisors only for active-shooter incidents.
"We have hadn't had an occasion where there have been a scenario of riot in my tenure in the city of Bradenton," Merriman said. "I would like to think we have a very good community bond with our neighborhood, community and ministry that may negate any scenarios that are being experienced out in Missouri."
Smaller agencies in Manatee, while being less equipped, prepare as best they can.
"We do some basic training in crowd-control tactics, but you are not going to see Palmetto Police Department officers dressed in riot-control gear," Palmetto Deputy Chief Scott Tyler said. "But many of our officers do go out every day with a personal and department-approved control rifle."
Without a TACT team, Palmetto would call in the sheriff's office for Bradenton police, if needed. The department utilizes other tactics, though, to combat violence.
Since the 2011 shooting outside the former Club Elite Nightclub that left two dead and 22 injured, Police Chief Rick Wells created a community-response team made up of pastors, many from the minority community, that can be called out in a time of crisis, Tyler said. Wells regularly meets with them.
"I would hope that our community has enough dialogue and has enough faith in our law enforcement that what we are seeing in Ferguson would not occur," Tyler said. "I have a lot of faith in our entire community that it would not raise to the level of criminal and civil unrest."
Legal, but unethical?
Issues surrounding the use of military-style equipment by law enforcement is less of a legal question and more of a question whether people think they should have access to use such force, according to Bradenton criminal attorney Matthew Whyte.
It is not illegal for law enforcement to use most of the weapons and equipment being questioned by critics, he said.
The use of force by law enforcement in a riot situation is not dissimilar to self-defense law.
"You are allowed to meet force with force, but no more," Whyte said. "The defendant will be judged against the 'reasonable man.' That is: 'What would a reasonable person do if faced with like or similar circumstances?' I think law enforcement is going to take the actions that they believe are necessary at that moment to control a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation, just like an individual will take the actions that he believes are reasonable and necessary at the time," he said.
The community trusts that law enforcement officers will use their best, professional judgment based on experience, training and knowledge, he added.
"In hindsight," Whyte said, "it's possible that the actions of law enforcement will be judged to be unreasonable, unnecessary, or excessive."
It is too early to begin to determine if excessive force was used in Ferguson, he said.
Whyte, like Steube, referred to the 1997 shooting in Hollywood, Calif.
"In a situation such as the North Hollywood shootout, I don't think anyone could reasonably argue that law enforcement should not have better and stronger weapons, vehicles and equipment than those that are endangering the lives of others," Whyte said. "If someone is actively attempting to cause imminent death or great bodily harm to others, law enforcement is expected to stop that threat, which may require force, including deadly force, to be used."
For local agencies, however, the surplus program is a means to acquire equipment at a much cheaper rate than typically available.
One of the Manatee sheriff's two helicopters was acquired through the program in 1996, but it was completely stripped down, according to Flight Deputy Dennis Sanders.
"There's nothing militarized about it," Sanders said. "The dash panel has been customized by us."
One of the only advantages of using the former military helicopter, versus the other, is that the doors can be removed, which makes it easier for occupants to see outside.
Today, the helicopter is used as often as its counterpart to routinely respond to calls.
"If the military is going to be willing to downsize its fleet and they are willing 'to give this stuff away,' why not better give it to law enforcement than to other governments?" Steube asked.
The sheriff's office was able to acquire their M-16s at no cost. At the time, the weapons were automatic, and the department purchased switches to set them to semi-automatic.
"It is a better way for law enforcement to get equipment that they wouldn't be able to pay the high price for it," Steube said.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.