SALEM, Ore. — Some local Oregon police departments have returned their military-supplied rifles and other weapons, slightly dropping the number of guns that came to Oregon through a nationwide program that equips police with gear left over from wars.
The number of M16 rifles that ended up in armories of police and sheriff’s departments statewide, from Bend and Deschutes County to Malheur County, has dipped about 23 percent since August 2014, according to inventories from the state’s 1033 program collected and analyzed by The Bulletin newspaper during the past 13 months.
The number of higher-powered M14s has also decreased about 16 percent over the last year, when a public outcry against what some said was a heavily militarized response to peaceful protests stemming from several high-profile killings by police nationwide.
While agencies have returned or are working to give back their military gear, none has told The Bulletin it did so in response to the enhanced focus on the program. But inventory has shifted away from weapons toward rifle scopes, cargo trailers, armored trucks and other gear agencies say save them money that otherwise would be spent to fight local crime.
“We sent the rifles back; they weren’t practical for our agency, and we never utilized them,” Cpl. Dwes Hutson, a spokesman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday.
Hutson told The Bulletin in December the agency planned to give back its nearly two dozen 5.56 mm M16 rifles because they were impractical for the type of law enforcement in that rural Western Oregon county.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has kept its mine-resistant vehicle, one of seven in Oregon, which the military values at $689,000.
West Linn, which in August 2014 had a U.S. military M16 rifle for nearly every officer on its force, returned its entire stockpile of rifles while keeping four .45-caliber pistols. The department didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
Other departments maintain that the program temporarily distributing the equipment to local agencies still provides a necessary inventory that saves agencies money they’d otherwise spend to buy the same gear.
“If you look at homicide rates, we’re asking police to go out and police a nation that has the highest murder rate in Western industrialized nations,” Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said in an interview.
Porter said his department, which keeps 10 M16 rifles and five M14 rifles through the program, had the opportunity to receive more gear but turned it down.
Porter said the department has altered the appearance of the weapons so they’re less militarized and made them semi-automatic instead of fully automatic. He also said officers have the weapons in their patrol cars “every day.”
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office has 22 M16 rifles, two M14s and four grenade launchers, along with an armored vehicle. The department also has an assortment of more than 400 cartridges, 28 reflex sights, 30 view mounts and four grenade launchers the department says are used for smoke and tear gas, not shrapnel grenades.
Deschutes County sheriff’s Capt. Erik Utter, who oversees the department’s program, told The Bulletin the agency equipped a special tactical unit formed in 2009 with some of the rifles, the night vision scopes and grenade launchers it received through the program.
He said the agency uses its $195,000 armored truck a few times per year and that the rifles are used by patrol officers and the tactical unit.
“We had an incident where an individual had fired an unknown round at one of our officers; the officer returned fire. We were in a standoff for several hours,” Utter said. “We utilized tear gas in that incident to draw him out, and that led to the successful resolution of that incident.”
Utter said he hadn’t noticed any changes in the program despite the enhanced scrutiny and calls for reform from President Barack Obama.
Portland Police told The Bulletin in December they were in the process of returning their nearly four dozen rifles, but an updated inventory this month showed the bureau still hadn’t given back the military weapons.
Agency officials say they’re looking for a new home for their 20 M16 rifles, which they say aren’t used. Five of the higher-powered M14 rifles are in use, and the others are not used or employed for ceremonies only, said Portland Officer Paul Meyer, who manages the department’s program.
“The model of M16 that it is is not very usable for what teams and street officers and others use; (they’re) pretty antiquated,” Meyer said. “It’s just an older weapons system, and it’s not something that we need.”
Through the 1033 program, agencies can find a new home for the weapons or other gear or work with the state coordinator to return it, Meyer said.
“I cannot speculate why some Oregon (law enforcement agencies) have chosen to turn in their weapons,” said Don Tesdal, Oregon’s coordinator for the 1033 program. “My contact with (those) participating in the program ranges from agencies that are extremely happy with the program to agencies seriously contemplating leaving the program.”
Tesdal said the Scappoose Police Department has decided it will give up its four M16 rifles and leave the program, which costs between $500 annually for small agencies to $2,000 for the largest agencies.
“I think it is fair to say that the annual dues along with a negative public perception of the program both contribute to some agencies choosing to leave the 1033 program,” Tesdal said.