MN police must return grenade launchers to feds under new military equipment rules

A handful of police departments across the state will have to return grenade launchers to the federal government following this week's announcement by President Barack Obama that imposes new rules on a program that provides military equipment to local police.

In addition to the ban on the grenade launchers, the new rules outlaw equipment like bayonets, vehicles with mounted weapons and firearms of .50 caliber or higher. They also tighten access to other equipment like drones and explosives, although law enforcement officials can still obtain that equipment if they cite a good reason the equipment is needed.

There are seven grenade launchers at police departments around the state, according to Joe Kelly, director of the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management division of the state Department of Public Safety, which acts as an intermediary between the federal government and local agencies. The launchers were mostly intended to be used for crowd control, Kelly said.

"The name is much more ominous than the actual utility of the piece of equipment, because they're not launching explosive grenades, and I think that's what people tend to think of," Kelly said. "They're mostly for tear gas."

State officials plan to work with law enforcement agencies to implement the new rules and to make sure that the now-banned grenade launchers are properly returned to the Department of Defense.

Over the last decade, more than 240 state and local law enforcement agencies in Minnesota have received 5,200 pieces of military equipment. The items range from a mine-resistant vehicle in St. Cloud to night vision goggles and a sniper scope in the tiny town of Royalton, which lists three police officers on its website.

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The issue of police using military equipment rose to public notice following protests against the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Images of heavily armed police officers and armored vehicles confronting the protesters shocked some in the public.

Law enforcement officers watch
Law enforcement officers watched during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 18, 2014.
MICHAEL B. THOMAS | AFP | Getty Images 2014

Obama said during an appearance in Camden, N.J., on Monday that militarized gear can "alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the new rules for the program were a good step.

"This kind of equipment exacerbates the problem," Samuelson said. "Nothing says that you're an occupying force more clearly than weapons that are designed to win wars and to conquer territory, so stopping that is a good thing."

Some law enforcement agencies have already taken steps to limit their use of the program. The Minneapolis Police Department started making preparations last year to return the items obtained through the program. The St. Louis Park Police Department obtained three grenade launchers, but has since returned them to the federal government. A spokesperson for the city said they simply didn't use the equipment.

Small police departments also participated in the program. Grand Rapids Police Department Interim Chief Scott Johnson said the department received a grenade launcher about two decades ago to potentially launch tear gas canisters, although they've never used it. They're currently trying to navigate the complex process necessary to return the equipment, which the new rules should also simplify.

The Grand Rapids Police Department also received a number of automatic rifles. Johnson said the weapons allow officers to be prepared in case a suspect is using automatic weapons, a concern that was raised following high-profile incidents across the country in the 1990s where police officers were outgunned.

"We've got enough to outfit our department," Johnson said. "Handy to have in case you need it, fortunately we haven't had to use it to shoot someone."

In a survey last year, most police chiefs in the state said they support the program, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. He's pleased that the new rules still allow agencies to get supplies like medical kits and bulletproof vests that they rely on during day-to-day work.

The new rules require that law enforcement agencies more closely track the use of equipment obtained from the program.

"The president's changes will provide a more formalized structure and process to acquire and return equipment," Skoogman said. "This makes sense and will help with any perceived or real issues around accountability."

The president's restrictions on the program are partially intended to maintain and rebuild trust between police and the military.

"We believe that how officers act is more important than how they're equipped," Skoogman said.

"If officers are properly trained, if strict policies on the use of such equipment are in place and enforced, that will go further to improving and maintaining strong relationships with the citizens our police organizations protect and serve."

MPR News Reporter Peter Cox contributed to this story.