The Investigators: The militarization of New York area police departments

Monday, August 25, 2014
Investigation into military-type weapons used by officers
Jim Hoffer investigates.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- It began with images from Ferguson, Missouri, officers armed to the hilt, looking more like soldiers than cops.

It has raised questions about the militarization of police departments around the country, and if you think it's not happening the New York area, you would be wrong.

It's an impressive array of military hardware, enough in some cases to equipment a small army. The NYPD has six armored vehicles, but then again, it's the number one terrorist target.

The Eyewitness News Investigators found small towns where the police have received huge mine-resistant trucks and grenade launchers.

The question is why?

Through a document request to the Department of Defense, we obtained the latest data on the kind of military equipment police in the Tri-State Area have acquired. It adds up to tens of millions of dollars in surplus military hardware, and all of it was free.

It ranges from thousands of Army-grade guns to hundreds of military utility vehicles and even heavily armored trucks like the mine-resistant $400,000 vehicle obtained by the Nassau County Police Department. It's one of four armored vehicles received by local Nassau police.

"They are beneficial," former NYPD detective Nicholas Casale said. "Nassau County is surrounded by water, prone to flooding."

Casale handled military surplus as part of the NYPD's Disorder Control Unit. He says the program strengthens the police response to natural disasters such as floods or provides protection in a hostage situation. But he admits that all the free gadgets and goodies can go too far.

"It crosses the line when the police chiefs are like a child in candy store and just take," he said. "And they take without a vision, what is equipment going to be used for."

For instance, the federal data shows that Belmar police in New Jersey obtained 100 combat knives, while Plainfield picked up 20 bayonets. And police in New Haven County, Connecticut, acquired three grenade launchers.

"I couldn't even attempt to guess what a police department needs grenade launchers for," Casale said.

The defense department data shows the NYPD is a bit recipient of armored vehicles, picking up six, including two tank-like carriers. It's understandable in a city that has been repeatedly attacked by terrorists.

But what does Casale make of small towns like Middletown, New Jersey, or Willimantic, Connecticut, or Westchester County, New York, getting armored vehicles?

"You have to question what need is, how to maintain this and how to train officers to use it," Casale said. "Short of that it's wasteful."

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for changes in the surplus program to stop what it sees as the militarization of policing. But as long as the Department of Defense is giving, police agencies are likely to keep taking, even in the face of growing concern.

"Rather than dispose of these vehicles or sitting in a lot rotting, they've made them available to police agencies such as ours," Nassau County Police Chief Steve Skrynecki said. "And we've taken advantage of it."

Our investigation has found that the Pentagon has given six armored vehicles to police agencies in New Jersey, 17 to Connecticut and 27 to New York.

We reached out to numerous police departments for a response, but most of them declined to comment.