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That military surplus armored mortar carrier the Arkansas Department of Correction has parked at its Cummins unit -- the U.S. Department of Defense wants it back.

Same with the M-79 grenade launchers it handed out over the years to four other Arkansas law enforcement agencies -- one each to the Faulkner County and Saline County sheriff's offices and to the Sherwood and Helena-West Helena police departments.

But the five items are the only military surplus in the hands of Arkansas law enforcement agencies that the Defense Department has since prohibited and wants returned, according to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Support Office, which is housed in the state Department of Career Education.

The recall of the prohibited items began earlier this month and is expected to be completed by April 1, a U.S. Defense Logistics Agency official said in a memo to state law enforcement support offices around the nation.

To be certain, neither the mortar carrier -- known as an M106 -- nor the grenade launchers were acquired for their original military uses.

The mortar carrier was used to provide transportation for the Correction Department's first Special Weapons and Tactics team. The M106, derived from the ubiquitous M113 armored personnel carrier, was stripped of the 107mm mortar and .50-caliber machine gun the military version sports.

"They have not used it in years," said Cathy Frye, a spokesman for the agency, adding that personnel familiar with the vehicle say it hasn't been deployed since at least 1996.

The grenade launchers, which were developed as a midrange solution to throwing a hand grenade or firing a mortar, likely were acquired by civilian law enforcement agencies to discharge tear-gas projectiles or other nonlethal munitions. But the acquisitions occurred so long ago that agency personnel interviewed last week could not recall the original reasons.

"I don't know why a grenade launcher would be used," said Virgil Green, who took over as chief of the Helena-West Helena Police Department three months ago. "I think the intent or the purpose was to deploy tear gas."

He said he queried veteran members of his department who couldn't remember the grenade launcher ever being used.

"I wasn't even aware we had it until I got the letter," Green added.

The items were banned after a review of the 1033 Program, which makes available military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies "to enhance and improve the LEA's mission to protect and serve their communities," according to a report based on the review. President Obama ordered the review last year.

"Equipment provided through federal sources has become a critical component of LEA's inventory, especially as fiscal challenges have mounted and other sources of equipment and funding have diminished," the report added. "LEAs rely on federally-acquired equipment to conduct a variety of law enforcement operations including hostage rescue, special operations, response to threats of terrorism, and fugitive apprehension.

"Use of Federally-acquired equipment also enhances the safety of officers who are often called upon to respond to dangerous or violent situations; being improperly equipped in such operations can have life-threatening consequences, both for the law enforcement personnel and the public they are charged with protecting."

In recent years, the most notable piece of military surplus equipment that Arkansas law enforcement agencies have acquired through the program is the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that U.S. military personnel used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles were developed as alternatives to the lightly armored utility vehicle commonly known as the Humvee to better protect military personnel from roadside bombs.

In 2014, at least seven Arkansas law enforcement agencies acquired the mammoth military vehicles known as MRAPs through the 1033 Program.

But the federal review began the same year, prompted by what civil-rights groups and other critics say is the militarization of the police. The critics said that militarization was on full display during the protests, looting and unrest that roiled Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 after the fatal shooting of a black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.

"At times, the law enforcement response to those protests was characterized as a 'military-style' operation, as evidenced by videos and photographs that showed law enforcement officers atop armored vehicles, wearing uniforms often associated with the military, and holding military-type weapons," the report said.

As a result of the the review, the Defense Department prohibited law enforcement agencies from acquiring tracked vehicles such as the M106, grenade launchers as well as bayonets.

Both the mortar carrier and grenade launchers, which are single-shot models and have the appearance of a sawed-off shotgun, were developed in the 1950s and saw action during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Neither the armored mortar carrier nor the grenade launcher is used by the American military today.

The Correction Department acquired the M106 mortar carrier in the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to Frye.

Its acquisition came at a time when the department had one emergency response team to respond to any riots or other major incidents at any of the agency's prisons, she said.

At the time, the system's prisons lacked the perimeter fencing that all of them have today. Also, each prison now has its own emergency-response team, she said.

The grenade launchers don't appear to be have been used in recent years, if ever.

Lt. Jeff Silk, a spokesman for the Saline County sheriff's office, confirmed his agency had a grenade launcher that may have been acquired as long as 20 years ago, but "don't ask me why. I wasn't here."

Silk said the weapon likely was acquired for his agency's SWAT team for hostage situations or some other unusual event.

"We are not going to go out and make a traffic stop with it," he said.

Metro on 10/18/2015

Print Headline: Police told to return battle gear

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Archived Comments

  • Skeptic1
    October 18, 2015 at 8:34 p.m.

    Saline County, Faulkner County, Sherwood, and Helena-West Helena seriously? Enough said.

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