by James Coleman —

New rules regarding the use of military-grade equipment for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Dept. passed on a 10-3 vote during the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday.

The legislation amends chapter 34 of the county’s code of ordinances. It creates a new article allowing for the use limitation of military weapons and other equipment. It also applies to the Shelby County Office of Homeland Security.

Alex Hensley, special assistant of Policy/Intergovernmental Affairs for Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, told commissioners the measure before them reflected the collaboration of Commissioner Van Turner Jr., the sheriff’s office and the mayor’s office. 

It also reflected the sheriff office’s desire that – in the event of a natural disaster – the sheriff’s office or the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security could receive rescue vehicles from a federal or state program without having to come before the commission.”

Other exceptions are for defensive equipment like bullet proof vests, helmets and shields. The resolution doesn’t apply to the Department of Corrections, which is already prohibited from receiving military-grade equipment.

Under consideration since the protest-filled summer of 2020, the resolution underwent revisions. It is one of two centerpiece resolutions under consideration meant to curb creeping excesses in policing. The other focuses on use of force, de-escalation and other policing tactics.

For members of the body, it was the first time seeing the final draft.

Amendments added in December were peeled away during a second discussion between Harris and Sheriff Floyd Bonner. According to the mayor’s office, they would have required months of further negotiation. It was also pointed out that the sheriff’s office doesn’t currently use military equipment.

“Overall, the sheriff’s office and the mayor’s office found more that we could agree on than not,” Hensley said. “The ordinance also reflects more clearly that this effort builds off of the best practices that Sheriff Bonner has already implemented, as well as what the sheriff’s office has done on police reform thus far. … 

“This ordinance ultimately reflects the need to have the best practices in place for the long term.”

Hensley noted that Sheriff Bonner had opted not to participate in the Department of Defense 1033 program long before the ordinance discussion. The 1033 program allows for the transfer of military equipment, including small arms and ammunition, to law enforcement agencies, including counter-drug and counter-terrorism measures. 

Commissioner Amber Mills called the adopted measure an empty gesture, suggesting it was used to bash Sheriff Bonner by opponents of policing and that it was a scaremongering tactic amplified by the media to instill unfounded fear in the populace.

“I cannot get past how disrespected the sheriff was in this. That he was not approached for six months. When all of this could have been taken care of on the front end,” Mills said.

“Basically, what this does … it saves face to give an empty pat on the back is what it is….”

It was also criticized for limiting preparedness for a large natural disaster or civil unrest.

“I guarantee you the Capitol police would have wished that they would have had military equipment in front of the Capitol to protect our Congress,” said Commissioner Mark Billingsley. “We have not seen a misuse of military equipment in municipalities, our county. I just can’t support this.”

To supporters, the legislation is about codifying the institution’s practices for the future and not a judgement on the current officeholder.

“Whether an earthquake comes or whether the Republican Party storms the Shelby County building like they did the White House, I mean the Capitol Building, I think we have access to what we need and we don’t need military-grade equipment for that,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

The measure was sponsored by Turner, Reginald Milton, Mickell Lowery, Sawyer and Willie Brooks.

Voting for the resolution were Commissioners Turner, Michael Whaley, Mick Wright, Milton, Brooks, David Bradford, Lowery, Chairman Eddie Jones, Sawyer and Edmund Ford Jr.

Commissioners Brandon Morrison, Mills and Billingsley voted no.