MassLive is reporting on an unusual finding that the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU published in its annual report on police militarization in the state. In the late ’90s, the West Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department acquired two M-79 grenade launchers and seven M-14 rifles through the Department of Defense’s 1033 surplus equipment transfer program. The West Springfield PD also received M651 military-grade tear gas canisters.
According to MassLive, West Springfield Police Chief Ronald Campurciani indicated that the grenade launchers had never seen action and added, “I cannot think of a scenario where we would employ those weapons.” Campurciani also noted that the grenade launchers were “so old and antiquated” that they were useless.
Originally, it was argued that the grenade launchers could be used by West Springfield police to fire the M651 tear gas canisters. However, as Chief Campurciani noted, “Those are the flammable ones, those things get very hot when they burn… They’re pretty much obsolete now.” Some have alleged that the FBI’s use of incendiary M651 tear gas canisters on people trapped in an enclosed space during the 1993 Waco siege started the fire that engulfed the Branch Davidian facility, leading to the deaths up to 76 people.
The rules of the DOD’s 1033 program state, “All equipment must be strictly accounted for. When no longer needed agencies must request permission for turn in, transfer, or disposal.”
With the US having been at war for over a decade, surplus weapons programs, through which old military weapons and equipment are transferred to domestic law enforcement agencies, have become a source of significant controversy, as many civil liberties activists have voiced concerns that local police departments are becoming over-militarized. Despite the fact that the United States is not a war zone filled with land mines, police departments across the country, including those representing small towns with little crime, have been given military equipment like Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles through federal grant programs.
SWAT raids, once rare and only employed to deal with known violent threats, now happen more and more often each year and are being carried out against people accused of lesser crimes like small-scale drug dealing. Contemporary police departments respond to peaceful protests in riot gear and armored vehicles, creating an environment of intimidation, rather than order and safety. Officers sometimes use military-style rules of engagement towards citizens, resulting in hostile confrontations that, too often, end in unnecessary violence. In fact, SWAT teams are used so readily that a new trend has emerged called “swatting” in which people call in prank bomb threats to trick police into raiding innocent people. As an example, just yesterday, Kotaku posted a video of a gamer getting raided mid-game by cops live on Twitch, a video streaming platform, after an opponent called in a fake threat.