Armored vehicle take-back ticks off some Florida law officers
By STEPHANIE ALLEN | Orlando Sentinel | Published: October 16, 2015
ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Florida lawmen must turn in their tanks. And some Central Florida sheriffs are mighty ticked about it.
A White House ban on military-style equipment is forcing 11 Florida law-enforcement agencies — including sheriff's offices in Seminole, Osceola, Volusia and Polk — to return all tanks they received years ago after the items were declared surplus equipment by the federal government.
The take-back of the cannonless tanks follows an executive order earlier this year by President Barack Obama.
That came after riots in Ferguson, Mo., and later in Baltimore drew out police officers in full riot gear with high-powered rifles and armored vehicles — making some city streets appear more like battlefields.
And heightening fears about the militarization of police.
The order put an emphasis on the need to better regulate the type of equipment law-enforcement agencies receive from the Department of Defense's 1033 program, which gives equipment no longer used by the military to local law enforcers.
That's how six agencies in Central Florida got their vehicles, which don't have cannons and do not fire shells.
For some, such as the Lakeland Police Department, losing the vehicle isn't a huge loss, Sgt. Gary Gross said. The department's tracked vehicle was a backup to a newer, wheeled armored vehicle.
Armored vehicles with wheels are allowed under the ban and are far more common than the recalled tanks with tracks.
Lakeland's tank was costly to maintain and cumbersome to transport, Gross said, as it can't travel on roads without damaging the pavement.
"It's not a big hit for us," he said.
But for others, such as Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson, who must also give up his agency's tracked vehicle, said the ban could be detrimental – and even deadly.
"For some agencies, this is all they can afford," Johnson said, "leaving their people on potential suicide missions."
Volusia's tracked vehicle can go through terrain that others with wheels can't, he said.
The department doesn't use it every day, but it has taken bullets for deputies, and the ban is "taking a valuable piece of equipment out of our fleet," Johnson said.
"People will die because of this decision," he said.
In all, 126 tracked vehicles have been recalled from agencies across the country, according to the Department of Defense.
Ohio has the most, with 18 tanks, followed by Michigan with 13, records show. Some of the agencies have more than one tank.
The agencies in Florida include Seminole, Osceola, Volusia, Polk and St. Lucie county sheriff's offices; Lakeland, Leesburg and North Miami Beach police departments are also included. Each has one tracked vehicle.
Those agencies, along with several in rural parts of North Florida, were sent letters Oct. 2 from the Florida Department of Management Services, who is helping recall all the vehicles for the Department of Defense.
It's unclear what will happen to the returned equipment.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance helped develop a plan for implementing the ban, which also prohibits agencies from having grenade launchers, firearms more than .50 caliber and weaponized aircraft, among other items deemed "militaristic in nature."
Lakeland police said they had some older weapons and a "chemical-agent gun" — considered a grenade launcher under the ban — that were returned. The weapons were outdated, and the launcher was only used for firing nonlethal items, such as tear gas, Gross said.
After a study, the bureau determined tracked armored vehicles are "designed specifically for use in military operations." And "their appearance may undermine community trust when used in support of civilian law enforcement activities," according to final report released Oct. 1.
Law enforcement agencies can find other armored equipment options, the report says, which many in Central Florida have already done.
Volusia's Johnson said the other options are expensive, have limits and aren't suitable for rural parts of Florida — something he said officials didn't consider when implementing the "one-size fits-all" ban.
Seminole and Polk sheriff's officials said their departments are complying and will have the tracked vehicles stripped of all insignia. Lakeland police said their vehicle is ready for pickup, too.
Osceola County Sheriff Bob Hansell said he's disappointed with the ban and not having the vehicle will have an effect on certain operations.
"This vehicle is used to rescue citizens and protect deputies against armed aggressor(s) during critical incidents," he said in a statement. "Law enforcement is trained and experienced to effectively utilize this equipment and it will have an impact on our responses to emergency situations."
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