Pinned down by automatic gunfire beyond the effective range of their pistols and shotguns, police responding in 1997 to a bank robbery in North Hollywood, Calif., knew they needed better weapons.
“The cops were completely outgunned,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. “That kind of started this discussion.”
It wasn’t the first time police found themselves overpowered, but because it was captured on live television, the 44-minute gunfight spurred public debate.
Jump forward 17 years, and new footage — of police in combat gear confronting civilian protesters in Ferguson, Mo. — has ignited a debate on whether police departments have gone too far in upgrading their gear.
Bueermann, a retired California police chief, said the latest debate is misguided — it should be focused on how departments are using their gear and how accountable they are to the public.
“The question of whether the police need these things has been answered,” Bueermann said. “They do.”
Critics of police “militarization” disagree. Military gear and training tend to lead officers to view civilians as “the enemy” rather than the people they’re supposed to protect, said Sara Rose, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
“When you have all that training and all this gear, you kind of want to use it,” she said.
Pittsburgh’s use of SWAT teams, who wear helmets and body armor and carry assault rifles and flash grenades, more than doubled from 122 times in 2012 to 251 in 2013, according to the Public Safety Department’s annual report.
The increase was driven by using the teams to serve “high-risk” warrants and in support of other departments, said city police spokeswoman Sonya Toler.
The way the department calculates “high risk” is flawed, said Tim O’Brien, a Downtown lawyer who has represented people suing agencies over SWAT raids.
“We’re now using (SWAT) to do police work that never before required this kind of force,” he said.
Pittsburgh in October agreed to pay a Carrick family $107,500 to settle a lawsuit over a SWAT team that burst into their home to arrest the father for fighting with an off-duty police officer at a bar a few hours before.
As part of the case, O’Brien examined the city’s risk formula. The calculation “takes into account only those factors that would support the use of a SWAT team, none of the factors that would detract or suggest that you shouldn’t use a SWAT team,” he said.
None of Pittsburgh’s or Ferguson’s weapons come from a Pentagon program that has become a key focus of the militarization debate. Congress established the 1033 Program in 1991 to supply military surplus to state and federal law enforcement agencies contending with drug smugglers on the Mexican border.
A series of events — including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building and the North Hollywood shootout — led Congress in 1997 to expand the program to local police departments.
Pittsburgh has not participated in the program for years. Acting police Chief Cameron McLay sees no reason to start.
“If we were to find ourselves running short on funds, then we might explore it, but that’s not our core function,” he said.
Ferguson has used the program, but to obtain only nonmilitary items such as computers, generators and utility trucks, according to an inventory released by the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
About 96 percent of the items the Defense Department sent to police departments last year under the program consisted of office equipment, civilian vehicles and other nonmilitary property, a department official said Sept. 9 during a Senate committee hearing. The remaining 4 percent adds up to about 78,000 weapons, vehicles and military gear, Alan F. Estevez, the department’s principal deputy under secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, told the committee.
Other experts and a local police chief say that although the military vehicles received through the program are armored, they are stripped of any weapons before the Pentagon hands them over.
“It has no offensive capabilities,” Ohio Township police Chief Norbert Micklos said of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle that went to a SWAT team covering several North Hills towns, including his. “It’s a bulletproof vest on wheels.”
They have not used the MRAP vehicle, but it’s there if needed, he said.
The SWAT team also received assault rifles through the Department of Defense. Once restricted to SWAT teams, they have become standard equipment for patrol officers in most major police departments since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, said Mark Lomax, a retired state police officer and executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.
“Prior to Columbine, patrol officers had a sidearm and a Taser, maybe,” he said. The standard practice for an “active shooter” situation was to set up a perimeter and wait for a SWAT team.
Police initially followed that practice at Columbine, but then a couple of officers with SWAT training arrived, grabbed some other officers and entered the school in a military formation to take on the shooters.
What was then an innovation became standard practice by the time the Virginia Tech shootings occurred, Lomax said.
“We now use one or two officers,” he said. The object is to “get in quickly and try and stop the action.”
McLay said equipping patrol officers with assault rifles and similar gear is necessary because of the criminals they face.
“All one has to do is look at the violent homicides that have plagued this community and look at the type of weaponry used by the suspects,” he said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Total Trib Media. Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed to this report.