Local elected officials are working to find out which law enforcement agencies in Orange County have received military surplus gear from the federal government.
Carrboro Alderperson Damon Seils told WCHL that he and fellow alderpersons have been trying to answer a lot of questions about that from constituents over the past few days.
“The lingering conversation that’s been going on over the past few years – one of my frustrations during that period has been that it’s difficult to have a conversation with a lack of information,” said Seils.
That lingering conversation likely started in Chapel Hill back on November 13, 2011.
That’s when a Chapel Hill SWAT team, armed with assault rifles and dressed in riot gear, forced Occupy protesters out of the Yates Motor Company building off Franklin Street.
Many citizens expressed alarm at what was called excessive force. Now, as the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri play out daily on television, new evidence gives Orange County citizens new reason to suspect that the trend of militarized law enforcement could potentially be a problem here at home.
As WCHL reported Monday, a recent New York Times story contains Department of Defense data that shows Orange County has received more military surplus armored vehicles than any other North Carolina county.
The location of just one of those six vehicles has been revealed, thanks to information obtained during an investigation by the ACLU of North Carolina last year.
Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass responded that his department received one such vehicle in 2007 for hostage or barricade situations, but it has never been used.
Carrboro and Hillsborough were not asked, but Seils told WHCL that the Carrboro Police Department does not participate in the so-called 1033 program of the Defense Department, although it “may have in the past.”
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens has also weighed in, telling WCHL that the town’s police department does not own armored vehicles.
Last year, when the ACLU investigation of the state’s 60 largest law enforcement agencies was conducted, a senior legal adviser for the Chapel Hill Police Department replied to the ACLU that the department had “no documents responsive” to a request for information about armored vehicles, and several other information requests were left unsatisfied as well.
Communications Director Mike Meno of the ACLU of North Carolina said the ACLU has reached out to hundreds of police departments across the country, and found that many were reluctant to provide information about participating in 1033.
But some facts can’t be hidden so easily. The ACLU has determined that nearly 80 percent of SWAT raids in the U.S are currently launched to serve low-level arrest warrants – and usually, for drug offenses. That’s a far cry from a SWAT team dealing with a mass shooter or a hostage crisis.
Meno said it’s often a case of “mission creep.” Departments will obtain military gear for one specific purpose, and eventually, the gear is being used regularly.
“Very often, it’s law enforcement who are introducing violence into what is an otherwise non-violent situation,” he said. “And I think one of the things we find really concerning is that there’s so little oversight and transparency.”
He said the ACLU urges municipal governments to impose “meaningful restraints” on local law enforcement regarding the uses of military weapons and tactics.
Meno said that investigations by the ACLU also affirmed what a lot of people may have already figured out from watching the Ferguson tragedy on TV.
SWAT raids are conducted disproportionately on people of color.
“You know, just locally, in Chatham County, the numbers we got back showed that thee was a 15-to-one racial disparity, where a black person was 15 times more likely to be the subject of a SWAT raid than a white person.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Sally Greene told WCHL on Monday that she planned to meet that afternoon with Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt; Police Chief Chris Blue; and Town Manager Roger Stancil to discuss the New York Times report.
Greene said to expect a “coordinated statement” sometime this week.
Carrboro Alderperson Seils said he’s been discussing the issue of police militarization with Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, as well as Town Manager David Andrews,
Seils said that more information will be available in the coming days, as the Town of Carrboro also releases a public statement.
WCHL is waiting to hear back from the North Carolina State Highway Patrol about the patrol station on US 70 in Hillsborough.