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SALEM — When Deschutes County Sheriff’s officials asked the federal government for free, military-grade equipment, they said it would be a fiscally responsible way to get the gear they know people in Central Oregon already own and have wide access to.
Capt. Erik Utter of the sheriff’s office said Wednesday the equipment from a federal program that sends free gear to agencies across the country “provides our deputies with the equipment that they need to have to be prepared for the (danger) that they may have to confront.”
Amid scrutiny over the militarization of America’s local law enforcement following images from the protests and police response in Ferguson, Missouri, Utter said the department needs the nearly $385,000 in magazine cartridges, body armor, dozens of rifles, four grenade launchers and other equipment to respond to dangerous situations safely.
“We know for a fact that the weapons we carry in our vehicles, that citizens in the community have access to those same kinds of weapons,” Utter said. Officers use the equipment to provide a “response that meets whatever threat you encounter.”
Utter added that the grenade launchers are used to fire smoke and tear gas, not live, shrapnel grenades.
The sheriff’s office formed a tactical unit around 2009. Utter said much of the equipment, such as the grenade launchers, night vision scopes and armored truck, were picked up to equip that unit.
Since the department got the nearly $200,000 armored vehicle, the sheriff’s office has used it a few times a year, Utter said. Other equipment, such as rifles, are given to patrol officers.
The Bend Police Department got fifteen rifles as part of the program, but Chief Jim Porter said his department hasn’t applied for armored trucks from the military because the department didn’t need that kind of equipment.
The department also “demilitarized” the guns it got through the federal program, changing them from fully automatic to semiautomatic, Porter said.
“It is our philosophy that we do not militarize police officers in routine patrol situations,” Porter said.
Porter said he believes Oregon’s police are acquiring the equipment they need given the unique geographical needs they each face.
The Bend department deployed its armored vehicle, which it bought separately from the program in May, last weekend to respond to a man police believed was armed and dangerous who led officers on a chase between Sisters and Bend. After police fired nonlethal bullets that are filled with a pepper-spray-like substance and saw no movement, they approached the man, Farhad Masheri, and found he had killed himself.
The federal program has flooded the country with weapons no longer needed for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other international combat that increasingly relies on unmanned vehicles. The program has either given, loaned or approved more than $10.7 million worth of equipment to Oregon agencies, according to documents acquired from the state coordinator of the program, Steve Smith.
Several departments in Oregon obtained armored vehicles they say are used by tactical units or SWAT teams, though at least one department, in Baker County, has hardly used its new, $658,000 mine-resistant vehicle.
“I think we have only taken it out twice as I recall on (SWAT) call-outs,” Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick wrote in an email.
Sgt. Carrie Carver, a spokeswoman with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, said there are regular situations in which the department uses its five Humvees. She said the department sold another vehicle it got through the program.
At more than $2.2 million, the Lane County Sheriff’s Office has received or was approved for more free equipment through the program than any other office in the state, a Bulletin review of the statewide database has found.
“Most of this stuff isn’t used on a daily basis,” Carver said.
The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office has taken more than $1 million in free equipment through the program, second in the state behind Lane County.
Many of the departments contacted for this story said coverage of the program has been skewed so that it negatively reflects police.
Sgt. Ryan Huntsman of the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office said it would be “nice if the article would present the program in a positive light.”
He didn’t immediately respond to written questions about how the department uses its equipment.
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