A few months back, Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight picked up a bargain from the federal government: a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored truck that had been used by troops in Afghanistan.
The sticker price normally runs Uncle Sam about $733,000, but the sheriff got it for less than $10,000 in drug-seizure money, mainly to cover the cost of gas, insurance and having four men pick it up in Texas and drive it back to Summerville.
Eventually, the desert camouflage will be painted police black and the MRAP will be outfitted with radios and other gear needed to support the sheriff's quick-response Special Entry Team and its role during hurricanes.
Knight downplayed the military appearance of the elephant-size machine but was quick to say it's better to have one than not.
"You read of so many places where the police are out-gunned and out-powered," he said. "You're just trying to keep up."
With the nation focused on the unfolding events in Ferguson, Mo., the standoff has brought renewed attention to a little-known government surplus program that since 9/11 has put millions of dollars worth of military equipment into the hands of law enforcement, including agencies across South Carolina.
For minimal cost, departments around the state have joined in the Pentagon's 1033 Excess Property Program and picked up surplus vehicles, helicopters, night-vision goggles, military rifles, body armor and grenade launchers capable of firing tear gas.
Critics of the program say it has militarized the police, which in turn has heightened tensions that have fueled two weeks of violence in Missouri following the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, whose agency has repeatedly utilized the 1033 program, is aware of accusations - from both the political left and right - of police brutality and overreach, and of the militarization of law enforcement. But he thinks it's all overblown.
"This militarization thing is straw man," he said. The concern comes from a "growing distrust and anger directed at government in general. What institutions do people trust? The military and law enforcement generally have been ranked at the top. But because of distrust for government, it's having an effect on the way people view the military and law enforcement."
Cannon is glad to have a helicopter, Kevlar helmets, AR-15s and M16s, all procured through the 1033 program, and he swears by the armored vehicle his agency was able to purchase thanks to a Homeland Security grant.
But he disputes claims that police forces are over-militarized, citing a long-held practice of transferring equipment from the military to local law enforcement agencies.
"It's been happening all along," Cannon said, "and it's in proportion to the threat that we face."
Nationally, media accounts tracing how surplus military gear makes its way into civilian police hands show virtually every county in the country has taken part. Law enforcement agencies in Charleston County have procured in aggregate 290 military rifles, six helicopters and two mine-resistant vehicles through the 1033 program, according to Defense Department data compiled by The New York Times.
"Since its inception, the 1033 program has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property," according to its website.
In 2013 alone, property worth about $450 million found its way to law enforcement. The program has its origins in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, which included funding guidelines for, among many other things, counter-drug activities. Section 1033 addressed the "transfer of excess personal property to support law enforcement."
Under the terms of the program, police departments can request military aircraft, grenade launchers, heavily armored tactical vehicles, small arms and ammunition, protective armor and more. Equipment is provided at no cost, according to the law.
The Defense Department "shall give a preference to those applications indicating that the transferred property will be used in the counter-drug or counter-terrorism activities of the recipient agency."
Enrolling in the program is easy. South Carolina's entryway is through the state Budget and Control Board. Departments pay a sign-up fee based on number of personnel. For departments with 25 or fewer officers, the annual fee is $500; for departments of 201 and up, the fee is $2,000. Once in, departments can troll a website looking for what they want.
Knight said it took about five weeks for his MRAP to be ready for pickup in Sealy, Texas.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida who teaches criminal law at the University of South Carolina, said historically the origin of the process of police militarization can be traced to the war on drugs. Subsequently, the War on Terror provided additional justification for arming local police agencies with high-powered weaponry and military hardware.
Stoughton said the terminology is problematic. When we declare war on something, it encourages a different way of perceiving and addressing conflict, he said.
"Police are not soldiers, and shouldn't be," he said. "When we added the war on terror to the war on drugs, there was a tremendous outlay of federal money for equipment and training. ... But I think that clouds the police mission. Thinking of police in terms of wars (drugs, terror, crime) obscures the mission."
But just because the program is available to police agencies doesn't mean all are taking part. Hanahan Police Chief Mike Cochran said his department has no overwhelming need for having high-grade military equipment, saying if there were a crisis in the city that needed high-power alternatives, some of the big neighboring departments, such as North Charleston or the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, would be at the ready.
Cochran spoke of the negative economics that go with acquiring military hardware. For instance, he might be able to get a $250,000 armored vehicle for next to nothing in cost but then it would take $40,000 out-of-pocket for the small department to retrofit it for police work.
The cost isn't beneficial he said, joking that even if the city's hypothetical MRAP is called on for use once a year, the battery might be dead.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.