Shock and awe

Butte County law enforcement agencies account for surplus military equipment acquired through controversial federal programs

Police Capt. Ford Porter and the Chico Police Department’s Bearcat armored personnel carrier, which was purchased with a Homeland Security grant in 2011.

Police Capt. Ford Porter and the Chico Police Department’s Bearcat armored personnel carrier, which was purchased with a Homeland Security grant in 2011.


See for yourself:

Check out the interactive map showing where surplus military equipment has gone at

Since 2006, Butte County law enforcement agencies have reportedly received 151 assault rifles, 60 pieces of night-vision equipment, 20 pistols, four helicopters and one mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle. All this through a government program that transfers surplus military equipment to civilian authorities, according to information recently acquired from the Pentagon and released Aug. 19 by The New York Times.

While some local activists say those numbers are consistent with a perceived national trend toward the militarization of police forces, some of the county’s top lawmen claim the equipment is necessary to do their jobs as safely, efficiently and economically as possible.

Images of heavily armed police officers clashing with citizens in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting death of an unarmed teenager, have brought to boil long-simmering concerns about the issue of militarization. Central to the controversy is the U.S. Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program—known as the 1033 Program—which has allowed surplus military equipment to be transferred to state and local agencies since 1997.

The program has expanded in recent years, with a massive influx of military hardware returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2013, $449 million of surplus military gear was distributed among 8,000 participating civilian departments, which receive the equipment free but are responsible for upkeep.

Bob Trausch, a board member of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke about police militarization at a Michael Brown vigil in Chico’s City Plaza last Sunday (Aug. 24). He said he believes police militarization has led to a breakdown in law enforcement’s relationship with the public.

“It’s no longer Officer Friendly like when I was a kid,” he said in a recent interview. “You have a military presence that creates fear, anger, resentment and an ‘us-and-them’ situation. Police are now being trained to think everyone is a terrorist or a criminal. The police need to focus training on reducing and de-escalating conflict.”

Though careful not to criticize Ferguson’s police response to what reportedly began as peaceful protests, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said his department intends to use any surplus military gear for less forceful activities.

“I don’t believe we would utilize these assets to deal with that particular problem, because the problem with that is it you tend to ramp things up, and in those situations you want to de-escalate,” Honea said in an Aug. 26 interview. “Driving an armored vehicle in there with people decked out in SWAT gear, I don’t know if that’s the right approach.

“But, there are circumstances we encounter in civilian law enforcement where equipment that also has a military application is appropriate for us to use, as long as it’s used in the appropriate circumstances with the appropriate kind of training.”

Chico Police Department’s Bearcat armored personnel carrier, which was purchased with a Homeland Security grant in 2011.

Photo by Ken Smith

Accounting for the equipment listed, Honea and Sgt. Derek Bell—a patrol administrator—explained the helicopters were actually acquired in the 1990s and not, as the federal data reports, in 2008. Honea said two of the choppers—Vietnam-era Bell Kiowas—are flight-ready, while the other two are used for spare parts. Likewise, some of the other gear, including rifles and night-vision equipment—mostly infrared laser scopes—is unusable or in need of repair.

Traditionally used to seek out illegal marijuana grows, the helicopters are now primarily used in search-and-rescue missions, Honea said, and can respond quicker than ground crews and access remote areas people can’t. BCSO’s air unit also assists other counties, and has the only law enforcement helicopters in the North State besides California Highway Patrol choppers stationed near Sacramento.

The MRAP, a 15-ton M1220 Caiman that Honea insists is not a “tank,” was acquired in February and has been officially dubbed the Sheriff’s Rescue Vehicle (SRV). Honea said it will be reserved for “very limited” SWAT activities and to assist the county’s Inter-Agency Bomb Squad.

“From the beginning, we were less about using it for offense and more about using it as a rescue vehicle,” Honea said, noting the vehicle has yet to be deployed, and will be outfitted with emergency medical equipment. “We can drive it into a situation where people are being shot at, shelter people in place, use it as a barrier, or render immediate medical care.”

As for the weapons, Honea said the BCSO can account for 105 of the assault rifles (AR-15s) and all 20 of the handguns (.45 caliber M1911s), explaining the arms were essential to equip his officers. All officers, from patrol to SWAT, are issued rifles, which Honea explained is common practice since the advent of live shooter scenarios like Columbine.

In a separate interview, Chico Police Capt. Ford Porter said his department has accepted 20 rifles, including some “M-16-type” guns and larger-caliber sniper rifles. Porter said the guns have enabled his department to equip every patrol car with a rifle, similar to the BCSO policy. The rifles came to his department fully automatic, but were altered to be semi-automatic for patrol units, while some reserved for the CPD SWAT Unit remain unaltered. All of the sniper rifles are used by SWAT.

Honea said Butte County has used the program judiciously—BCSO declined the chance to get a second MRAP—and that it’s helped the department acquire assets in the face of limited finances. He estimated the MRAP’s value alone at about $700,000.

He also said the 1033 program is not just for weaponry, but also offers useful nonmartial items. The BCSO has acquired cooking equipment for the county jail, and is currently on the lookout for gardening tools for alternative custody work crews.

Trausch and other critics believe gear acquired through the 1033 program is just the tip of the iceberg, and that other, similar programs—such as the Department of Homeland Security’s 1122 program—further contribute to militarization. That program also has been used in Butte County, most notably for the Chico Police Department’s 2011 purchase of a Bearcat armored personnel carrier, which was also labeled a “tank” by detractors.

Porter and Honea both said the Bearcat has already likely saved lives, particularly in September 2012 when it was deployed to a Tara Terrace apartment where a man named Wayne Renner reportedly fired at police before being shot and killed.

Types of gear not being supplied to local police by the feds include lapel and dashboard cameras, which Trausch said are essential to protect people on both sides of the badge from bad behavior. He said he believes the CPD could be outfitted with lapel units for about $80,000, but police officials have thus far balked at the cost.

“We would like to go to [lapel cameras] immediately, but the problem is they’re a big-ticket item,” Porter said. “The city is having significant budget issues, so we don’t have a lot of money to do that. But it’s an excellent proposition and we have no problem with using them.”