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Police militarization, equipment exchange program under fire on college campuses

A military Humvee, such as the one owned by University Police, is one of many pieces of equipment local police departments can receive as part of a federal exchange program. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU 

In recent weeks, the images of police using rubber bullets, tear gas and flash grenades against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have brought the issue of police militarization to the forefront. 

A recent records request by the collaborative news site found over 100 college campuses nation-wide currently participate in a federal program that gives campus police military grade weaponry, showing the issue is not just limited to city or county police. 

USF University Police (UP) Public Information Officer Chris Daniel said UP has acquired a military Humvee and $2,000 worth of defense-grade assault rifles through a federal exchange program. 

“All of our acquisitions are done with the intent of helping the community and dealing with emergency issues that arise,” Daniel said. 

USF UP is not alone. FSU’s police department acquired a Humvee about a year ago and Florida International University has 50 M16 rifles and a mine-resistant vehicle. 

When asked why a mostly commuter school would need such equipment, FIU Police Communications Manager Deanna Sydnor declined to comment. 

The University of Florida also participates in what is called the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 program). USF obtained its military equipment through a similar federal exchange program. 

These programs not only provide local police departments with weapons, but they also provide them with everything from office equipment to generators. 

Critics of the program are weary however, of the police rhetoric that the weapons and equipment acquisitions are for protecting the community. 

The issue of police militarization has made its way to Capitol Hill recently with Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson unveiling a proposed bill that would stop the transfer of specific military equipment to local law enforcement. 

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also criticized police militarization in an op-ed he wrote for TIME magazine in late August, writing “the images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

Gage Lacharite, a member of USF Students for a Democratic Society, said local activists see police militarization as a response to the popularity of mainstream activism over the last couple of years.

“There is no new threat,” Lacharite said. “If you look at Occupy Wall Street or Ferguson, they are mostly peaceful protesters that they are using these things on.”

Adam Williams, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary social sciences, said he feels more intimidated than protected by the upgraded firepower of campus police departments.

“If you look at the history of crime at USF, it is more about sexual assaults … and drugs,” Williams said. “I don’t understand why we would need to respond to those things with more force.”

According to FSU Police Chief David Perry, the point of the program is not to scare students at all. 

Perry, who is also the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said when the program is used in a responsible manner and by a responsible agency, it enhances the ability of the police to do their job.

“The 1033 program has assisted law enforcement agencies … in obtaining needed supplies, furniture, vehicles, officer protective apparel and tactical equipment that they would not otherwise be able to acquire,” Perry said.

Daniel echoed Perry’s sentiment and said USF’s police department has only used the military Humvee for operations such as pulling out people stuck in their cars after the campus flooded during a graduation ceremony in March.

According to Daniel, UP specialty response officers are trained to use all the military equipment acquired from federal exchange programs. 

“I understand the concern when you see stories about agencies who have this equipment they really have no need for and are using it improperly,” Daniel said. “But as long as the agency at their particular institution is handling the equipment safely, students shouldn’t be concerned.”

See below for a interactive map of local police departments in Florida that participate in the 1033 program.

View 1033 Program Participating Departments in Florida in a full screen map