Back in 2003, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott watched from afar as a band of Abbeville extremists killed two law officers and held off a small army of law officers for 14 hours.
“I realized we didn’t have anything here in Richland that could handle a situation like that,” Lott said.
For Columbia police Capt. Earle Marsh, his awakening moment came in 2013 when a berserk Clemson University student drug dealer holed up in a Shandon house, then committed “suicide by cop” when he charged Marsh’s SWAT team with an AK-47 blazing.
“One of my officers was missed by about that much,” said Marsh, holding his fingers about two inches apart. Marsh realized he didn’t have any kind of armored protection that could shield his SWAT team members or civilians in a real emergency.
That’s how Lott and Marsh began to use a Pentagon program that since 1997 has distributed more than $4 billion worth of surplus military equipment to law agencies across the nation.
In the Midlands, law enforcement agencies have obtained several million dollars’ worth of surplus gear, including Humvees, multi-ton mine-resistant vehicles, helicopters, fax machines, ropes and rifles, to name a few of the dozens of items received.
The Columbia Police Department and the Richland County and Kershaw County sheriff’s departments made the information available Tuesday to The State at the newspaper’s request.
A Lexington County sheriff’s spokesman said new Sheriff Lewis McCarty is having a list of his agency’s military equipment drawn up and will likely release all or part of it later this week. The spokesman said the department did get a helicopter.
Under the Pentagon program, no offensive heavy combat weapons, such as .50-caliber machine guns or high explosives, are given to local agencies. Moreover, items are de-militarized – meaning any combat capabilities are removed – before going to civilian agencies. Law agencies have to keep close tabs on items received.
“It’s a great deal for the taxpayer,” said Lott, whose department has received upwards of $2 million worth of military gear in the past 10 years.
On Tuesday, Marsh gave a State reporter a tour of the city’s downtown underground cache of military gear, where dozens of different items including backpacks and winter fleece jackets are stored.
Other items received by the city include gloves, tool kits, a forklift, ropes, duffel bags, sand bags, spotting scopes, folding bayonet-type field knives and two axes.
“You never know when you’re going to need an ax,” Marsh said.
Marsh also took a reporter to see the city’s $678,000 MRAP (mine resistant ambush protection), a 15-ton behemoth that stands about 10 feet high and 21 feet long. It has four enormous tires and windows of bulletproof glass about six inches thick. It would have been taller, but the military had removed a .50-caliber machine gun in a turret atop the vehicle. The SWAT team sanded the vehicle down, and a local shop donated the flat blue paint job so it wouldn’t look like so military-like.
“It’s like a moving wall,” Marsh said, explaining how it could give his SWAT team protection so it could get close to help other officers or civilians in a situation where they are taking incoming fire.
Neither the county nor the city has had to use its huge armored vehicle in an emergency situation.
“But it’s there if we need it,” Lott said. “I don’t want to be in the position of having to wait for someone else to send their vehicle in to help us.”
Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said his military equipment includes an unarmored Humvee that can operate in rugged back country, a 21/2-ton truck for transport and towing, a portable light bar (that doesn’t affect night vision) for use at crime scenes and a generator to power lights. He also has an armored Humvee.
“A police car is basically a family car with extra springs in it – it can’t stop bullets,” Matthews said. Many criminals, on the other hand, are armed with high-powered weapons these days.
Marsh said the city’s unarmored Humvee came in handy during last winter’s snow storms. When roads were impassable, officers used the high-riding, big-tired Humvee to go to remote areas to shuttle police dispatchers and medical personnel into the city, he said.
Any local law enforcement agency must go through screening before being given military equipment to be sure the gear is appropriate, Marsh said.
“We probably wouldn’t have gotten our MRAP if we already had 10 of them,” Marsh said. “We have to go through an approval process.” Other factors in city’s favor included that the city is close to Fort Jackson and is in an urban environment. The MRAP, a 2008 version, cost $678,000 when new, he said.
All the equipment is gotten without cost to city taxpayers, and it’s better “than it winding up in a reef in the ocean or in some foreign country,” Marsh said.
Lott and Marsh said some of their big items are used as public relations tools.
In a speech Monday at the Columbia Rotary Club, Lott criticized the way military equipment has been used in the ongoing standoff between law enforcement and protestors in Ferguson, Mo., this month.
Lott, who took some fully decked SWAT team officers to Rotary along with his new MRAP – nicknamed “Mojo” – told Rotarians that law agencies that have the military equipment need to take it out in the community so that the first time people see it is not in an emergency.
“We use all of this equipment far more in public relations,” Lott said. “Look at the people at the Rotary Club who came out and looked at our equipment and engaged in conversation with our deputies. That conversation starts a relationship.”
People shouldn’t criticize local law agencies just because they have military equipment, some of it quite sizable, Lott said.
“Misuse of some of this equipment by one agency shouldn’t allow somebody to paint all law agencies with a broad brush,” Lott said. “Judge us by what we do with this equipment – not by what somebody else did.”