PONTIAC, Mich. >> On the day a heavily armed couple fatally shot 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in San Bernardino, Calif., last month, Michael J. Bouchard, a sheriff here in the Detroit area, got an order to return his department’s 14-ton armored personnel carrier to the federal government.
It was one of hundreds of similar notifications from the Obama administration to law enforcement agencies across the country — from Los Angeles to rural areas like Calhoun County, Ala. — to give back an array of federal surplus military equipment by April 1, in response to concerns that the equipment was unnecessary and misused. The items to be returned: armored vehicles that run on tracks, .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage clothing.
Most of the agencies have complied without complaint. But to Bouchard and some other suburban and rural sheriffs, the orders were an infuriating, if entirely legal, federal overreach, leaving local officials without critical tools in an age of heightened fears about terrorism and mass shootings.
“This isn’t Mayberry, where a guy goes and locks himself in jail because he got drunk,” Bouchard said, describing Oakland County, Mich., where he has been the sheriff since 1999. “There are guys who walk up to you and fire off 13 rounds in a couple of seconds.”
Since at least the 1990s, with congressional approval, the Pentagon has sent extra military equipment to local law enforcement agencies in every state — including to police and sheriff’s departments; prisons; and school, university and park police. That program expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, when federal officials began to view police departments as critical in fighting terrorism.
As fears of more attacks were stoked by warfare overseas, as well as by shootings like the 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., there was little criticism about providing weapons of war to local law enforcement officials.
There were, though, some complaints, reflecting conflicting views of the police. While many see them as the first line of defense against terrorism, others speak of heavily armed officers prone to excessive force. For example, in Detroit, officers raided a licensed marijuana growing business in 2013, wearing masks and brandishing assault rifles. There is a lawsuit pending against the police department in that case.
Then came the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., against the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.
As the police there confronted demonstrators, social media and television were flooded with scenes of officers clad in body armor while riding atop armored vehicles, aiming semi-automatic rifles at protesters. Images of the police as soldiers provoked sharp criticism, including from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Amid the protests, President Barack Obama ordered a review of the military equipment program by a panel including the heads of the Defense, Homeland Security and Justice departments. The panel’s report, made public last year, cited the public uproar caused by the police response in Ferguson and said the government had failed to adequately oversee the program. It also pointed to a June 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that documented the flow of battlefield gear to local police departments and incidents of its abuse.
The equipment, the ACLU report said, had resulted in more aggressive tactics by departments, particularly in minority neighborhoods, leading to deaths and serious injuries.
In one 2014 episode highlighted by the ACLU, a heavily armed police officer in Cornelia, Ga., threw a stun grenade into a playpen during a raid, blowing a hole in the face of a 19-month-old baby and causing severe burns. The officer was not criminally charged.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force,” Obama said last year as he announced the recall of some of the equipment, “as opposed to a force that’s part of the community, that’s protecting them and serving them.”
Local officials say the recent shooting rampages in San Bernardino — the nation’s worst terrorist attack since Sept. 11 — and at a Planned Parenthood building in Colorado Springs show that even modest-size departments need military gear. They point out that fears about terrorism have spread to the smallest communities.
They also say that the equipment has been helpful amid tight county budgeting, and that it is used in all sorts of ways that do not involve civil unrest or terrorism, including training exercises and confrontations with gunmen. Armored vehicles, which move on tanklike tracks, are often used for search-and-rescue operations after storms or floods to navigate rough terrain, they say.
“Take them away from anyone who used them improperly, absolutely, but don’t punish everyone,” said Sheriff Larry Amerson of Calhoun County, who was recently ordered to send back his department’s M-113 armored vehicle. “Now, if we have an active-shooter situation with an armed person, we don’t have any piece of equipment to move in safely for my deputies or the people I’m sworn to protect.”
The Pentagon said local agencies that had been ordered to return tracked armored vehicles like the M-113 would get priority in receiving similar vehicles, including Humvees and MRAPs, which can withstand roadside bombs.
Rural sheriffs, though, say tracked vehicles can climb steep hills and travel along unpaved roads, a significant advantage over other vehicles.
“We have some pretty rough terrain here, and we feel like they took a major tool out of our toolbox,” said Sheriff Lorin W. Nielsen of Bannock County, Idaho, who returned his department’s M-113 in December.
The bulk of the $5 billion worth of equipment given out since 1990 consists of conventional items, including boots, tents, flashlights and file cabinets, and has not been recalled.
In Oakland County, home to urban areas and some of Michigan’s wealthiest suburbs, Bouchard said his force had received about $5 million worth of equipment from the federal government since 1994, which buoyed it through recent budget cuts. The gear included 620 assault rifles and six Humvees.
“It’s obviously needed, and when and where it is used are legitimate questions,” he said. “But they are questions for each community to decide.”
He said that in recent years, his department had dealt with heavily armed gunmen who barricaded themselves inside buildings, and that the department’s M-113 armored vehicle had been used to move deputies in and to ferry potential hostages to safety.
Bouchard returned the vehicle last month, but he continues to bristle at what he said was federal micromanaging.
“If the president is worried about what my deputies are wearing, that’s a problem,” he said. “And frankly, it’s not his business.”
Bouchard, whose daughter is a staff editor at The New York Times, said he had been in disbelief when he received the federal order Dec. 2, as the San Bernardino massacre unfolded live on television.
“I was thinking, ‘Did you guys not watch that?’ ” he said, referring to federal officials. “It was like: ‘Really? Turn on the TV.’”
The sheriff said the department had also had to return some of its bayonets, which he said deputies used sometimes to cut through seatbelts after car crashes. Deputies also place decorative chrome bayonets over the barrels of their assault rifles during parades and other community events. Each of the 16 recalled bayonets was used for such ceremonial functions, he said.
“There’s no police department in America that fixes bayonets to rifles and charges into a crowd,” Bouchard said. “I mean, if you can trust our folks with a semiautomatic handgun, you can’t give them a big knife?”