Letter: Police chief speaks out about military surplus program

(Editor's note: The following letter to the editor was received from Travelers Rest Police Chief Lance Crowe following media coverage of the department's Humvee, recently put into service at the high school. It has been reprinted here in its entirety.)

To the Editor:

In 2009, the Travelers Rest Police Department joined the federal 1033 program that facilitates the passing down of surplus equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies. With the exception of an unarmored Humvee utility truck and a mobile field kitchen, every item we have received from the 1033 program is something that we would have eventually tried to purchase (but may never have been able to afford).

Two benefits of the 1033 program are (1) that we can save taxpayer money, and (2) that we can procure equipment and supplies much sooner.

I understand that there are those who feel that our use of a former military vehicle is somehow joined at the hip with our procurement of free surplus “military equipment” and the increasingly-popular “militarization” buzzword; but I believe that these three topics are distinct, each deserving of their own thoughtful conversations.

Free stuff: I am at a loss for how to answer those who oppose our use of free office supplies, mechanic’s tools, and first aid equipment. As I explained to Tim Waller with WYFF earlier this week, those items represent thousands of dollars that the city of Travelers Rest did not have to spend from taxpayer funds. To date, the department has received (i.e.,saved taxpayer money) items valued at over $203,000 (that’s nearly one-fifth of this year’s annual budget for this agency).

This list includes things like tourniquets, trauma modules, fleece jackets, a computer monitor, a diesel generator, an industrial air compressor, a golf cart, flashlights, shovels, fuel cans, surge suppressors, fax machines, a tarp, battery chargers, a carpet cleaner, and yes, an unarmored Humvee.

It may help if people remember that taxpayers have already paid for this equipment. Giving it to local police departments only serves to extend its useful life.

The Humvee: Even before requesting it, our plan was to convert a Humvee to a “novelty vehicle” to be used by our school resource officer. It serves as an icebreaker to foster communication with the students and as a sense of pride for the school. We specifically requested an unarmored vehicle (though to the untrained eye our Humvee can look similar to those still in military service). We were offered one of those big MRAPs, but we didn’t really have a use for one and declined it.

A Humvee is not a Prius, and we understand that diesel costs more than gasoline, but since it is not a patrolling vehicle we felt the poor mileage would be of little consequence. It drives, at most, a couple of miles per day and spends most of its duty time in the parking lot of the high school.

Travelers Rest High School auto shop students sanded and painted the vehicle for us for free, and they did a fantastic job. Other than a few minor items we had to purchase new, almost all of the lights, siren, control panels, etc. were old items that we have kept from decommissioned patrol cars over the years.

To date, I believe we have spent less than $500 on the Humvee from line items within the Police Department budget. These purchases were things such as wipers, heater repairs, a power steering belt, locking door handles, and a couple of light bulbs for the dash. We paid for the paint as well as the installation of the electronics and the decals from seized funds and a separate discretionary fund made up of various small grants. The truck is, of course, insured like any other car and will require ongoing maintenance and fuel.

Since it serves as the SRO’s vehicle, our Humvee proudly displays the TRHS Devildog logo. It will be available for officers to use in snow and ice storms (we made sure we requested a model with a winch). It will lead the homecoming parade and will, most likely, find a spot in our Christmas parade.

Though it will not be assigned to patrolling duties, if our SRO hears of an officer needing help, I would expect him to drive the Humvee to that location to assist. The fact is that our Humvee would make a horrible crisis response vehicle, due to its slow speed, its lack of armor, and how difficult it is to exit quickly.

In spite of its novel appearance, the Humvee is simply a large diesel truck that we procured for free and outfitted for next to nothing. It has no machine guns, almost no armor (one small piece of armor appears to have been mistakenly left on one of the doors), and is not even air-conditioned.

Most importantly, we’ve already seen that it is a big hit with the students and the school administration.

Police who sometimes resemble the military: I am on record stating that I do not see a problem with a certain amount of the “militarization” of police (as far as I understand how people are using the term), and I stand by that opinion. It is an increasingly dangerous world, and the fact is that any atrocity we have witnessed across an ocean could occur in America today, even in Travelers Rest.

I have also been quoted reminding people of Columbine and Abbeville, and I firmly believe that it is a matter of “when”, not “if”, a similar incident comes to our small town.

Again, I believe this should be considered separately from our unarmored diesel truck, but it is clear that there are those who, either because of a lack of information or a vested interest in sensationalism, link the two topics.

Memory can be short, but modern law enforcement training does not allow us to forget Columbine, West Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, or any of the other 80+ active shooter situations (not including the daily gang-related shootings) that have occurred in this country since 2000.

If a person wants more insight into what keeps law enforcement executives and training officers up at night, I would direct your attention here: http://alerrt.org/files/research/ActiveShooterEvents.pdf. (Fair warning: this report will give you a peek into law enforcement’s world that you may not be able to un-see afterward -- denying it cannot make it go away.) For more interesting reading, research the Beslan school massacre in 2004.

When the TRPD responds to a suspect(s) actively killing our children in our schools, I suspect that we will look very
militaristic in our attire, weapons, and tactics. Columbine may rest in the distant past for some, but it was a game changer for law enforcement, and we have trained for years based upon the lessons learned on that day.

I am not interested in things appearing fair or evenly matched when we respond to aggression of this magnitude. I think one would be hard-pressed to find a parent of a child at Sandy Hook who was concerned that their police were too militaristic.

Closer to home, I also doubt that the shoppers who were locked inside the Travelers Rest Walmart in the November 2012 standoff with an armed man criticized the Greenville Sheriff’s Office’s big armored vehicle and military-looking officers who responded to assist our agency with his capture.

Is this look appropriate or even feasible for everyday patrol? No, it is usually adequate (and far more comfortable) to hide our body armor under our shirts and to keep our larger weapons securely locked in our cars. Most of us know that we should give up some of our protection for most of the time for the sake of public perception.

I think it should be noted that our SRO (the driver of that Humvee) is the only TRPD officer who wears a casual golf shirt in his daily duties, specifically to make him more relatable to the students. Even so, to invoke a metaphor that’s common in our field, the wolf and sheepdog can sometimes look very similar. I think perhaps this is what Sheriff Chuck Wright meant last week when he asked Tracey Early with WSPA, “What does it matter what we look like? If you're not a bad guy, what do you care anyway?” It’s our behavior that distinguishes us from the wolves who would prey on the rest of society. The wolves should be afraid, the vast majority of people should not.

A wise friend recently pointed out to me that we Americans have an interesting relationship with our military, and I would add that the relationship with our police is very similar. Most of us recognize the need for our military and depend upon it to protect us, but we have a very deep-rooted fear of it being used against us by our own government. In much the same way, police are sent “out there” to protect us, but we often have at least a latent fear of being the object of an officer’s attention.

I truly hope that in my lifetime I never witness any force on American soil indiscriminately enforcing unjust laws against our citizens—I know I will never take part in such actions and no agency I oversee will be allowed to as long as I lead it.

In the meantime, when someone considers how the TRPD intends to use free paper shredders, first aid kits, generators, and yes, an unarmored diesel truck, I ask that we be judged by our actions (and ours only) and not solely by our appearance.

In our line of work there’s a word for judging someone only by his appearance—profiling—and we train our officers at every opportunity to shun this practice. I think it is only fair to expect the same from those we serve.

Chief Lance Crowe, TRPD