© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003
Since 1994, Florida law enforcement agencies have received approval for 1,941 rifles and grenade launchers from military surplus stocks. To get them, sheriff's offices and police departments have at times inflated crime statistics or misled authorities about the need for the weapons or the way the weapons would be stored.
The police chief in this town of 12,451 told state and federal officials in 1998 that he needed four M-16 rifles because "armed robberies are up 900 percent in Lynn Haven to date." State crime records show that the town had one armed robbery in 1997, 10 in 1998 and one in 1999. Chief David Messer stands by his statement. "It was true," he said. "We somehow had a rash of ATM robberies that year and a couple of convenience store (robberies)."
Its executive director says the agency does not include its four M-14 rifles in its annual inventory because they cost less than $1,000, the threshold at which taxpayer property must be regularly counted. The rifles were issued to investigators, but they received no special training and have never used them. Leon is the only prosecutor's office in the state to seek military weapons.
In 1998 the department asked for 12 M-16s, three M-21 sniper rifles and three M-14s. But as it approved the request in part, the state was not aware that Suwanee's SWAT team already had borrowed six M-16s from neighboring Hamilton County. A year later, Hamilton loaned Suwanee three more M-16s. Hamilton Sheriff J. Harrell Reid, who promised the state that he would not "sell, trade, lease, lend, bail, cannibalize, encumber or otherwise dispose of" the M-16s, says he was just trying to help a neighbor. Late last year, Suwanee returned all but one of the nine rifles to Hamilton after it bought enough M-4s, the same rifles used by troops in Kuwait, on the open market to outfit its SWAT team with new equipment.
When it asked for M-14 rifles in 1994, the agency said it would use them for antinarcotics missions. But now the 10 rifles sit in an armory -- used only on ceremonial occasions. The semiautomatic M-14s still work, but since they arrived in 1995, the agency has received 50 M-16s. Mothballing weapons violates federal rules, which require the rifles to be returned or transferred to another approved agency. "If they send us something in writing, then I will address it," said Chief David Bonsall.
In 1997, the 32-member force sought a handful of M-16s for tactical missions in a chunk of south-central Florida along Lake Okeechobee. But when the six rifles arrived in 1999, Glades realized they came with some unanticipated training costs. So the department keeps the rifles in an armory, with no plans to use them. "We simply don't have the resources," said Chief Deputy Kenneth Holley.
The tony town of 10,468 has a median family income of $137,867 and some of Florida's biggest oceanfront mansions. But to former Police Chief Frank Croft, it is a dangerous place. "Palm Beach is the nearest point of land in the United States to the northern Bahamas and therefore is the terminus of the major illegal drug transshipment route of the northern Caribbean," he wrote in 1999. The department didn't get the four M-16s it wanted, but in 2000 it received four M-14s that can be used as long-range sniper rifles. The town's lawyers refuse to say how they deploy the rifles and whether anyone has been trained to use them.
In 2001, the president of Ohio's Kent State University rejected a request by campus police to get eight surplus M-16 rifles. She acted after an outcry from faculty and students still mindful of the 1970 killings of four young people by National Guardsmen armed with military M-1 rifles. But there was no outcry at Orlando's University of Central Florida when campus police sought and received eight M-16s for "rapid response to violent tactical situations." "We're not going to let officers just run out there and take them on the street and let them take them in patrol cars. Period," said Sgt. Troy Williamson. "We're going to use common sense ... We're not going to be a Kent State where we just start shooting people."
Vincent Zirakian was driving 20 mph under the speed limit last spring when deputies tried to pull him over. He stopped the car briefly but took off again, and another deputy tracked the 69-year-old, mentally ill man to his home in Deltona. During a standoff that followed, deputies said they saw Zirakian holding a shotgun inside his house. Using at least one military-surplus armored personnel carrier, they tried to put a "chemical agent" in the house. Zirakian fired at them, and the deputies fired back. He was killed.
"We've got long guns, short guns, grenade launchers ... " said Maj. Roberto Fulgueira as he peeked in a closet cluttered with commercially purchased munitions beefed up with military surplus. "We're ready to go for a war." In 1999, the 17-member Sweetwater force received four M-14s after requesting them for counterdrug work. But Chief Jesus Menocal never registered the weapons with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as required. He said he thought he didn't have to because the weapons are not fully automatic.