War on Drugs

The Peacemaker

Sheriffs with tanks


In March the sheriff and SWAT team of Richland County, South Carolina, posedfor a photo with an impressive new piece of equipment: an M113A1 armored personnel carrier. The vehicle, which moves on tank-like tracks, features a belt-fed, turreted machine gun that fires .50-caliber rounds.

The sheriff, Leon Lott, obtained the $300,000 vehicle through the 1033 program, named for a 1997 federal law streamlining the Defense Department's transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. Law enforcement agencies pay a nominal annual fee (Lott's paid $2,000) for access to the equipment, which they can then order at steep discounts, sometimes for free.

In addition, after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security began offering terrorism-fighting grants to domestic police departments in places such as Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Canyon County, Idaho; and Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The subsidies help the departments acquire military-style armored
personnel carriers, which they generally use to serve drug warrants.

Critics say the program blurs the line between the military and domestic policing, and that it fosters a militaristic mind-set among officers, many of whom haven't been properly trained to use the equipment. Charles Earl Barnett, a U.S. Marines veteran and retired police major who has served on several United Nations and NATO military and peacekeeping missions, says a .50-caliber machine gun is "completely inappropriate" for domestic police work. It "causes mass death and destruction," Barnett says. "It's indiscriminate. I can't think of a possible scenario where it would be appropriate."

Sheriff Lott has named his new acquisition The Peacemaker, explaining in a press release that the name is fitting because "the bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9 'Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.' " The announcement concludes, "Sheriff Lott hopes to always bring resolution to all conflict through peaceful means."