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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Lawmakers Scrutinize Flow Of Military Gear To Vermont Police

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Vermont State Police
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The Vermont State Police acquired this armored vehicle, known as an MRAP, from the U.S. Department of Defense in 2014. Legislators in Vermont are now looking more closesly at how police here acquire military equipment.

The police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo. last year raised concerns nationally about the militarization of local law enforcement. And legislators in Vermont are taking a closer look at how military equipment is acquired by police here.

Since 1999, the Department of Defense has distributed more than $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment to police agencies across the country. Some of it has ended up in the Green Mountains.

The bulk of the gear is pretty routine, and includes stuff like fuel filters, furniture, generators or clothing. But sniper rifles, Humvees and even armored vehicles are also flowing into Vermont police arsenals.

“You know, it’s kind of intimidating when local police officers begin looking like soldiers,” says Allen Gilbert who heads the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And I think that’s what has really grabbed people.”

Gilbert supports legislation that would put new checks on the federal Law Enforcement Supply Office program. The bill has some prominent legislative co-sponsors, including the Democratic leaders of two House committees. But the plan to place oversight of the program with the attorney general hit a snag Thursday when Jonathan Treadwell, the head of the criminal division, said the office is ill-prepared to assume those duties.

"It's kind of intimidating when local police officers begin looking like soldiers." - Allen Gilbert, Vermont ACLU

“So we do have significant concerns about the burdens that this proposal would pace on our office,” Treadwell told lawmakers on the House Committee on Government Operations Thursday.

Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, told lawmakers that two months ago, the Department of Public Safety took over administration of the federal program from the Vermont National Guard.

L’Esperance says he appreciates the concerns elicited by the arrival of military vehicles like the Bearcat, an armored tank used in war zones for landmine resistance.

“It’s ugly. It’s mean looking. And it’s offensive. And hopefully we never see it,” L’Esperance says.

So long as heavy-caliber machine guns are in civilian hands, Vermont State Police director Col. Thomas L’Esperance says state and local police need access to items like sniper rifles and even an armored tactical vehicle.

L’Esperance says he’s amenable to efforts to increase transparency of the program, and ensure external oversight of it. And he says police here aren’t using the tactical gear for police activity that doesn’t warrant it.

But so long as high-powered weapons are in civilian hands, L’Esperance says state and local police need access to items like sniper rifles and even an armored tactical vehicle.

“That weapon, that piece of machinery to me is a mobile bullet proof vest,” L’Esperance says.

Members of House Committee on Government Operations are working on a new version of the bill that would require municipal police agencies to notify their local selectboards in advance of acquiring tactical military gear.

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