City streets, war zone weapons: Washington lawmaker wants military surplus weapons out of hands of local police

SPOKANE, Wash. — It has been a long-standing issue: demilitarizing the police. Does it make a community safer or place it at risk?

Law enforcement agencies have an arsenal of military weapons, and a controversial police reform bill in Washington could take them away.

The equipment comes from a federal surplus program that allows the Department of Defense to transfer excess property to law enforcement agencies. That can include everything from clothing to exercise equipment to helicopters and armored trucks.

A mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle is just one of the pieces of military weapons the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has. The U.S. military used it in the Iraq War because of the threat of IEDs.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said it is used to de-escalate situations and protect the community, but critics say these are weapons of war that should not be used on city streets.

Over the years, trust between the community and police officers has been rocked; most recently by the killings of black men by officers.

“Not just black men. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile. The list goes on,” said Pastor Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Baptist Church.

Kendricks is on a statewide task force to address issues of policing and racial justice. He wants to mend relations between communities and officers, starting with how officers protect you.

“You’re going to fight a war with your own people with these pieces of military equipment?” asked Kendricks.

Kendricks is directly referencing equipment like that MRAP vehicle, as well as an armored vehicle called a bearcat.

Both the Sheriff’s Office and the Spokane Police Department use bearcats to respond to some of the most serious situations.

“The fact of the matter is to de-escalate. De-escalate instead of escalating. Of course, when a tank shows up, of course that’s intimidating,” said Kendricks.

Departments across Washington have access to thousands of these items. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has 1,678 pieces of equipment, including rifles, armored vehicles, helicopters and more than 1,200 magazine cartridges.

Washington Police Departments Surplus List by Erin Robinson on Scribd

Some of the current equipment, like the MRAP, would have to be returned if House Bill 1054, sponsored by Federal Way Democrat Rep. Jesse Johnson, passes.

“You take it away, the more less-lethal stuff you take away, the more lethal actions happen,” said Knezovich.

According to a public records request, the MRAP has been used nine times so far in 2021. It was used 20 times in 2020 and 19 in 2019.

“I don’t think that they can really comprehend the fact that some members of our community don’t feel safe with this equipment in place or police coming into the community with this equipment,” Johnson said.

“I’m not in favor of defunding the police. I am in favor of reimagining what they do and my imagining of what a police department looks like,” said Kendricks. “Why do you need military-grade weapons to do your normal police work?”

The Spokane Police Department has received 150 items through the program; one armored truck, infrared illuminators, reflex sights, and no other weapons. But, Chief Craig Meidl said the bill would cut off the ability to get certain equipment from the program in the future, like silencers, which he said are mainly used to protect officers’ hearing.

Rep. Johnson said suppressors will be allowed, which is what Meidl said his department has.

“My concern is that we may lose that, even if we didn’t get it from the military, and I’m not saying that we’re there yet, but we may lose that,” Meidl said.

“Do you want us to be able to save you? That’s the question you need to decide,” Knezovich said.

Regardless, Pastor Kendricks said whether or not things like armored vehicles or guns come from the program, money needs to go to other resources.

“If you reinvest in education and in economic status and all of those things, then you might not have to deal with those situations down the road,” he said, adding that it all comes down to trust. “We’re better than that. We as a human race, we’re better than that. There has to be a better solution. Violence just begets violence.”

This is just a small piece of a bigger police reform bill. If it passes, changes would come to how departments police communities.

Officers would not be able to buy or use tear gas, the ability to use chokeholds or neck restraints would be banned, protocols would change for when they use their K-9s and there would also be new guidelines for police chases.

The bill is still in the committee and will go to the House next. Read it in full below.

Substitute House Bill 1054 by Erin Robinson on Scribd

House Bill 1054 by Erin Robinson on Scribd