MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — School police departments across the country, including those in Florida, have taken advantage of free military surplus gear, stocking up on mine resistant armored vehicles, grenade launchers and scores of M16 rifles.
At least 26 school districts have participated in the Pentagon's surplus program, which is not new but has come under scrutiny after police responded to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri in August with tear gas, armored military trucks and riot gear.
Now, amid that increased criticism, several school districts say they'll give some of the equipment back. Nearly two dozen education and civil liberties groups sent a letter earlier this week to the Pentagon and the Justice and Education departments urging a stop to transfers of military weapons to school police.
CBS4 News obtained and reviewed the entire database of every law enforcement agency in the state of Florida that has received free surplus military tactical equipment.
According to the database, Pinellas County School police is in the only K-12 district in the state to receive surplus military tactical equipment. It received 2 armored trucks, 2 MRAPs and 22 M16s.
MRAPs are armored vehicles and it stands for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected. Pinellas County is located on the west coast of Florida near Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Bay County Schools also received seven M16s and a .45 caliber pistol, and Palm Beach County schools received two .45 caliber pistols.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools has confirmed it did not receive anything through the Department of Defense 1033 program. We are still waiting to hear back from Broward County Public Schools.
Several Florida universities did receive equipment.
According to the database, Florida International University received an MRAP and 49 M16 rifles.
The University of North Florida got eleven M16s.
The University of Central Florida received 11 M16s and a grenade launcher that was converted to fire tear gas. A UCF spokesman said the guns were used in an incident last year when school police officers had to confront a heavily armed student.
The University of Florida got an armored truck and the University of South Florida in Tampa got twenty M16 rifles.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest school district, said it would it would remove three grenade launchers it had acquired under the program in 2001 because they "are not essential life-saving items within the scope, duties and mission" of the district's police force.
Law enforcement agencies around the country equipped themselves during leaner budget years by turning to the Pentagon program, which the Defense Department has viewed as a way to get rid of gear it no longer needs. Since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, school districts increasingly participated.
Federal records show schools in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Utah obtained surplus military gear. In addition to the Los Angeles school district, at least five other California districts have received equipment, state records show.
In response to police tactics after a white policeman fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, the White House said it would conduct a review of the Pentagon surplus program, and Congress also plans hearings on it.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said while there's a role for surplus equipment, especially defensive gear, going to local police departments, "it's difficult to see what scenario would require a grenade launcher or a mine resistant vehicle for a school police department."
San Diego Unified School District is painting its MRAP white and hoping to use the Red Cross symbol on it to assuage community worries, said Ursula Kroemer, a district spokeswoman. The MRAP has been stripped of all weapon mounts and turrets and will be outfitted with medical supplies and teddy bears for use in emergencies to evacuate students and staff, she said. Adding: "This thing is a bulletproof safe haven on wheels."
Jill Poe, police chief in the Southern California's Baldwin Park school district, said she'll be returning the three M16 rifles acquired under her predecessor.
"Honestly, I could not tell you why we acquired those," Poe said. "They have never been used in the field and they will never been used in the field. They're locked up in our armory ... I was looking to ship those back because they're never going to be of use to us."
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