The West Springfield Police Department has been unable to explain why they possess two M79 grenade launchers despite obtaining the weapons through a federal government program that is supposed to be regulated to ensure participating police departments only receive equipment needed for a specific purpose.
The grenade launchers were obtained in 1996 through the Department of Defense's 1033 program, which transfers excess military property to police departments throughout the country free of charge.
The 1033 program has been criticized as a contributor to the militarization of American police departments by making it easy for them to obtain powerful weapons that may be inappropriate for law enforcement purposes. For police departments in Massachusetts, the process of applying to obtain military-grade weapons under the 1033 program is as simple as filling out this one-and-a-half page form and submitting it to the Massachusetts State Police, which coordinates the program on behalf of the Governor's office.
A document from the Massachusetts State Police which was obtained earlier this year in response to a public records request shows that, among the many 7.62mm and 5.56mm rifles requested by police departments throughout Massachusetts, the West Springfield police had at some point requested two grenade launchers.
West Springfield Police Officer Joseph LaFrance said in a voicemail earlier this year that “grenade launcher” was “kind of a misleading term” for the weapons.
“We have no grenades,” he said. “It's a multi-use device. We would use it to fire tear gas canisters for crowd control or a riot situation. They also can fire rubber batons at somebody as a less-lethal force use.”
“In my 17 years here, I've never seen it deployed. They've been in the closet and unused as far as I'm aware,” he added. “They've never been used or deployed.”
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts raised concerns on Facebook about the two grenade launchers, which they learned about while researching the trend of police militarization in Massachusetts. In response to the ACLU's post, The Republican contacted West Springfield Police Chief Ronald P. Campurciani to ask him about the weapons.
"I cannot think of a scenario where we would employ those weapons," Campurciani told The Republican. He said the weapons had never been used before except on a shooting range.
He said the West Springfield police can no longer use the weapons, which are out-of-date technology.
"They're so old and antiquated," he told The Republican.
He said the CS gas canisters which the department would use as ammunition for the grenade launchers are a fire hazard and too dangerous to be used.
"Those are the flammable ones, those things get very hot when they burn," he told The Republican. "They're pretty much obsolete now."
He also said the grenade launchers shoot inaccurately, which the department discovered when they tested them at a shooting range.
The federal law which outlines the 1033 program requires that the Governor of the state in which the participating police department operates certifies “with respect to the type and amount of equipment so requested” that the equipment is “necessary and suitable for the operation of [the requesting] agency.”
Additionally, the Massachusetts state government had to sign off on a Memorandum of Agreement with the federal Defense Logistics Agency before any local police departments could obtain equipment under the 1033 program. The agreement states that the property must be “suitable” for use by the requesting agency, will be “placed into use within one (1) year of receipt,” is not for “speculative use/possible future use,” and that the granting of requests will be “based on bona fide law enforcement requirements.”
None of these requirements appear to have been met with respect to the grenade launchers, considering the police chief of the very agency that requested these weapons characterizes them as antiquated, obsolete, inaccurate, and dangerous, and has said they have never been used for law enforcement purposes in the past and are unlikely to ever be used in the future.
According to the Memorandum of Agreement, unused equipment is supposed to be transferred to another police department or returned to the Defense Logistics Agency for destruction, however, the West Springfield Police Department has managed to hang on to its grenade launchers for nearly two decades.
In 2009, The Boston Globe published a critical report on the 1033 program, using the West Springfield Police Department's grenade launchers as one example of the program going too far. Governor Deval Patrick quickly suspended the state's participation in the program and ordered a review. The program was relaunched in 2010 with new restrictions added, but it appears the program is still not regulated effectively enough to ensure that police departments do not keep unnecessary weapons.
“The fact that the West Springfield Police Department has dusty grenade launchers laying around—in apparent violation of the rules governing the military weapons transfer program—indicates there’s a serious lack of accountability with respect to the 1033 program,” said Kade Crockford, a staff member with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“Has the state of Massachusetts conducted the audits they are required to do? If so, why haven’t these dangerous weapons been shipped back to the military? It’s alarming that police departments in Massachusetts can obtain this kind of weaponry in the first place. It’s cause for extra concern to see the flagrant disregard for the government’s own regulations when it comes to auditing the program and holding departments accountable for their participation in it.”
It remains unclear why these weapons were provided to the West Springfield Police Department in the first place.
Chief Campurciani, who did not become police chief until 2012, told The Republican he was not sure why the weapons were acquired.
The Massachusetts State Police provided a copy of their agreement to provide the West Springfield Police Department with two grenade launchers and several other weapons in response to a public records request, however, they did not provide a copy of the request form the police filled out to obtain the weapons.
When asked if there was a mistake, a representative from the Massachusetts State Police Legal Section stated that the state police do “not possess any additional responsive records... concerning your request,” indicating that they no longer have a copy of the request form. This form would have included the purpose for which the West Springfield Police Department said they were requesting the grenade launchers.
Recent public records requests filed with the state and federal government aim to uncover the policies used to determine whether police departments need the equipment they request under the 1033 program.
We also plan to make additional public records requests for information about the 1033 program in the future.