Rifles, night-vision goggles, body armor and a few massive vehicles designed to withstand roadside bombs are some of the military equipment that law enforcement agencies in Maine have acquired for little cost from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Through a program that redistributes surplus military gear to local law enforcement agencies, Maine officers have received more than $12 million in military hand-me-downs between 2006 and May 2014. Though the majority of the equipment consists of basics such as cold-weather underwear, office equipment, medical supplies and motor oil, researchers and civil libertarians are concerned that outfitting local police officers with combat-style gear has serious consequences for how police interact with the communities they’re sworn to protect.

The images of protesters in Ferguson, Mo., facing a local police force equipped with military-style riot gear have sparked a national conversation about the growing militarization of local police forces, and how agencies should balance community policing with the risks posed by violent criminals or deranged citizens.

“Obviously we haven’t seen a situation in Maine like what we’ve seen in Ferguson yet, but the capacity is certainly there,” said Rachel Healy, director of communications and public education for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Just the existence of this militarized equipment often tends to escalate situations when we should be attempting to de-escalate them.”

Local law enforcement officials in Maine, however, said that citizens should view the use of heavy battlefield gear as proof that police are adapting to keep the public and officers safe during rare but increasingly dangerous confrontations between police and armed criminals.

“It sounds a little callous, but when people stop shooting at us or threatening us or threatening the community, we can have that conversation about not being prepared for it,” South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said. “But the reality is people do do that, and we have to be prepared for it.”

South Portland’s violent crime rate — including murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery — was just under 20 per 10,000 people in 2012, the most recent comparative data available. That compares to a national rate of 39 violent crimes per 10,000 inhabitants.

Like police agencies across the country, Maine departments have increased their firepower and armor with military-style equipment, some of it surplus Defense Department equipment, some paid for by grants from federal agencies. Because the equipment comes from several federal agencies and programs, it’s not clear exactly how many armored vehicles, perhaps one of the most visibly intimidating pieces of military equipment given to local agencies, have come to Maine.

Some central Maine police agencies have received fairly inocuous equipment, or none at all.

Chief Deputy Ryan Reardon, of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said his agency has received limited supplies through the Department of Defense program. “We have copiers,” he said.

Reardon said the Maine State Police received heavy equipment that troopers can use to assist local and county agencies, adding, “If there was a situation where it was needed, we’d call the state police.”

Deputy Chief Jared Mills, of the Augusta Police Department, said his agency has gotten tactical vests for the department’s special response team, which responds to incidents of potentially high danger. He said the vests, which are only used in high-risk situations, give the officers an extra measure of protection.

“When we have to use them, they’re good to have,” Mills said.

That’s more that Waterville got.

“We do not have any surplus military equipment,” said Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey, who said he does not recall Waterville receiving any equipment in his nearly three decades with the department.

In South Portland and Sanford, however, police have armored vehicles, and they have used them at least once this year: South Portland during a standoff that turned into a suicide, and Sanford to serve a warrant on a suspect in an armed bank robbery. Portland used its armored vehicle during an incident in 2011 in the Riverton apartment complex in which police were in a standoff with several men they believed were armed. Several people were arrested, but no guns were found.

The equipment upgrade is occurring despite a violent crime rate in Maine — 12 violent crimes per 10,000 residents – that is one-fourth the national average. Police say that neglecting the possibility of an incident invites risk.

“There are some people who say nothing happens in Sanford and Wells and Kittery and Berwick, but that’s putting your head in the sand,” said Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly, who leads a regional response team that handles potentially violent situations. The violent crime rate in York County is 14 incidents per 10,000 people; and in Sanford, 30 violent crimes per 10,000 people.

“If you look all over the country, no one thought that horrific incident in Sandy Hook would happen, but it did,” he said. “At Columbine (High School), no one expected someone would go into a school and start shooting. Now the standard has changed.”

The national conversation about police use of military equipment comes after Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by an officer on Ferguson’s predominantly white police force. Public protests about the shooting of Brown have turned into a public discourse about allegations of racial bias and police brutality nationally, fueled by images of the protesters facing off against police in riot gear lobbing tear gas and firing rubber bullets into the crowds.

On Monday, President Barack Obama called for a review of programs that supply local law enforcement military equipment, and lawmakers have said they plan to review and possibly limit the type of equipment that is transferred in the Defense Department program.

“This Ferguson, Missouri, incident, it’s an isolated incident,” Oxford County Sheriff Chief Deputy Hart Daly said. “There’s going to be a knee-jerk reaction across the country. It’s a bad thing for law enforcement and the citizens we protect.”

Daly’s department was approved to receive a $658,000 mine-resistant vehicle but decided it could not afford the $10,000 it would cost to ship the vehicle across the country. Daly’s officers would have benefited from it during a standoff with an armed man in Mexico last weekend, he said. During the incident, three officers were pinned down behind their cruisers by the man, who died from police gunshots. Had the department owned an armored vehicle, those officers could have been ferried to safety.

Connolly, the Sanford police chief, strongly defended the police’s right to have military-style gear but criticized how police in Ferguson have used it.

Instead of starting at the lowest possible level of confrontation, Ferguson police appeared to gear up immediately, he said.

“If you start at that level, where do you go?” Connolly said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have that stuff available. I’d have it down the street and around the corner.”

Such shows of force, according to experts in policing and psychology, influence how people behave, although not always as police intend.

Far from being cowed into compliance, people tend to react aggressively when weapons are involved, said Brad Bushman, professor of mass communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

“Just the mere presence of a weapon can make people (those without the weapons) more aggressive,” Bushman said. “Police officers now are dressing more like Army soldiers. A police officer is to help other people out and protect them. An Army soldier’s job is to kill people and is dressed to do that efficiently and effectively.”

Bushman said the response is not a conscious decision to be more aggressive in the face of heavily armed officers.

“That’s the most impressive thing about the ‘weapons effect.’ If people thought about it, they would do just the opposite,” he said.

The national ACLU launched a project a year ago to document the increasing militarization of police, particularly with respect to the war on drugs and the use of SWAT teams to serve basic warrants or apprehend nonviolent criminals. The danger, Healy said, is that tactical shifts can change the role of police in their communities.

“We absolutely want our police to have the equipment they need to be safe and to keep us safe, but the first rule should be to de-escalate, and not escalate,” she said. “I believe the situation in Ferguson never would have gotten to the situation it was at, but for the actions of police: shooting an unarmed black man, followed by inappropriate policing of peaceful protests.”

Peter Kraska, chairman of graduate studies and research at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, is one of the first researchers to do extensive research on police militarization. He said that even as police departments have talked in recent decades about doing more community policing to improve public relations, a corresponding trend toward the paramilitarism of SWAT teams has taken place around the country.

That now pervades police institutions, so that in many communities, the police are viewed as an “occupying force” and police perceive the public as “enemy combatants.” That can lead to police using deadly force inappropriately and losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public, he said.

The use of military hardware also has affected the officers themselves, said Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of the law, police science and criminal justice administration department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“I do believe that police departments, regardless of their size, could benefit from upgraded or military grade equipment,” she said, noting that criminals are sometimes better equipped than police and some incidents do require a SWAT team response. However, use of military-style hardware can influence police subculture, particularly in smaller departments.

“If you have this kind of equipment, you say what is more of your role now, Officer Friendly, social worker-type or am I a soldier?” Haberfeld said.

“Police, regardless of the size of the department, have a responsibility to make explicit to their troops that these equipments are there for very specific situations — violent bank robber, active shooter,” she said, “and never to be used against crowds out there demonstrating or exercising civil rights.”

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