When three groups of fist-waving protesters converged on graduation at Fort Hays State University last year, tensions ran high and things got a little rowdy.
But not bad enough for officers to break out their M16 military assault rifles, said Ed Howell, director of the campus Police Department.
Those rifles, he said, are for “really bad situations,” like an active shooter on campus.
Howell said he and his officers are trained to know when and when not to pull out the big guns — the military weaponry and vehicles that colleges across the country have acquired through a Defense Department surplus program.
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It’s a program that has come under fire recently, accused by critics of militarizing small town and campus police departments.
Fort Hays’ nine-member police force is among more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies that have stocked up on surplus military gear. At least 117 of those agencies police college campuses.
In Kansas and Missouri, five schools are on the Law Enforcement Support Office list as having purchased military equipment: Fort Hays and Pittsburg State University in Kansas and, in Missouri, Lincoln University (Jefferson City), Missouri Southern State University (Joplin) and Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla).
Some of the campus police said they bought military surplus weapons, vehicles and other supplies because they can get them at a discount. They have acquired everything from laptops, duffel bags and first-aid kits to rifles, grenade launchers and mine-resistant vehicles.
In Mississippi, Hinds Community College bought an M79 grenade launcher through the program in 1998 but has never used it. The school says it plans to sell it as campus surplus.
Ohio State University has a mine-resistant vehicle, but it’s not armed. Campus officials told The Washington Post it would be used only for getting a medical team into a dangerous area before it’s secure, so it could help people sooner.
The University of Texas System Police, which acquired a mine-resistant vehicle, M16s, rifle sights and two Humvees, told The Post it had deployed the Humvees twice: once in a kidnapping investigation involving a drug cartel and once when someone threatened to explode an improvised explosive device.
Ninety-five percent of all the equipment provided to these law enforcement agencies through the Law Enforcement Support Office program is not weapons, and tactical vehicles make up less than 1 percent, said Michelle McCaskill, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency. The agency is responsible for doling out excess military property for the Defense Department.
In the last four years, the Fort Hays campus police chief has bought nine M16s, two M14s and two M21s. Howell said he paid $80.40 for each fully automatic rifle. He said that in the marketplace, he would have had to pay more than $1,000 each.
“We converted them for civilian police officer usage,” Howell said, explaining that a block was installed so the guns fire only as semi-automatic weapons. “The general public can go out and purchase an assault rifle. We want to have the same capabilities as the general public.”
Before getting the surplus rifles, he said, “the only thing we had was a handgun on our hip.”
Pittsburg State bought two M16s in 2010. “We are a full Police Department, and we need to have the appropriate equipment to do our job,” Police Chief Michael McCracken said.
Lincoln University bought four M16s, a bunch of computer equipment and some knives. Missouri Southern has bought computers and a few storage units.
The Pentagon surplus program started in 1990 to equip local police for fighting drug-related crimes and later terrorism.
Now it’s being criticized for militarizing local police after the nation watched local authorities in Ferguson, Mo., respond to protests that erupted after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed African-American teen by a white officer.
In front of television cameras, police in the St. Louis suburb rolled up in armored vehicles, carrying assault rifles. They were dressed in camouflage, tossed tear-gas canisters and fired rubber bullets.
Some groups and lawmakers say the surplus program — called the 1033 for the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that created it — has gone too far and have proposed legislation to reel it in.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in a letter signed by more than 20 other groups, called for an end to the “transfer of military weapons to local school districts.”
“Adding the presence of military-grade weapons to school climates that have become increasingly hostile due to their over-reliance on police to handle routine student discipline can only exacerbate existing tensions,” the letter said.
In response, program officials said the Law Enforcement Support Office provides excess equipment “only to qualified law enforcement agencies that have been vetted by the governor-appointed 1033 program state coordinator” and then by the support office.
Proposed legislation would prevent local law enforcement agencies from acquiring weapons such as grenade launchers, armored vehicles, weapon-equipped drones and long-range acoustic devices that send out high-pitched noises to scatter crowds. And it would prohibit regifting any equipment gotten through the surplus program.
But university and college police defend the program, saying it has been good for them and saves cash-strapped agencies a lot of money.
“The (Law Enforcement Support Office) program is an important program to many of the law enforcement agencies that do not have the financial resources to purchase the items that are needed to prepare, train and respond to active violence situations,” said Capt. Don Stubbings, assistant chief with the Kansas State University Police Department.
K-State has bought small items — such as first-aid kits — from the program but equipped its police with AR-15s, which are the civilian and police equivalent of the M16.
Stubbings said such weapons are “critical” to campus law enforcement.
He said that ever since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School and the 2007 campus shooting at Virginia Tech changed the way campus police respond to active shooters, college and university law enforcement agencies have either bought assault rifles or, like the University of Missouri-Kansas City, partnered with city police that have them.
If not for the surplus program, Lincoln University’s Police Department wouldn’t have been able to afford the first generator its barracks have had in 25 years, Chief Bill Nelson said.
Before he bought it, Nelson worried every time it stormed that the department would lose power and not have backup.
Gregory Russell, Johnson County Community College’s police chief, said his department hasn’t needed to shop at the Defense Department surplus program but might check it out in the future.
“It is absolutely a great resource,” he said. “I hope that they don’t eliminate it, because that would be punishing those departments at some of the smaller, further-out college campuses that have equipment needs but don’t have large budgets.”
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School districts, too
At least 26 school districts across the country have participated in the Pentagon’s surplus program, including the Blue Springs district.
Blue Springs got three leg splints and two fleece coats, said district spokeswoman Cara Anger.
In the Topeka area, the Auburn Washburn district received a piece of safety equipment, Superintendent Brenda Dietrich confirmed, but she wouldn’t say what it was. The Topeka Capital Journal reported that it was an M16 rifle.
The Associated Press and Joe Robertson, The Star