After unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed earlier this month by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, tension in that community has bubbled over into protests and riots, and the military-style equipment being used as a control mechanism by police agencies in Ferguson has become a hot topic in recent weeks.

Images of police officers brandishing military-style weapons atop mine-resistant vehicles, also known as MRAPs, in front of protestors has become part of the current 24/7 media story. Those actions spurred local and federal officials to call for the “demilitarization of police” across the country.

“There should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, wrote in a Time magazine opinion column in reference to the Ferguson protests. “Washington, D.C., has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies – where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.”

The use of military equipment by local police officers is not new. The surplus program, also known as the 1033 program, has been in place for more than a decade. Many Aiken-area law enforcement agencies have participated in the program for years.

The program allows the U.S. Secretary of Defense to transfer excess supplies and equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense to state and local enforcement agencies, who pay only for transportation costs for the equipment.

Aiken Department of Public Safety Capt. David Turno said the 1033 program has saved local taxpayers at least $1 million.

“It's pretty significant,” Turno said. “The only cost to us is to pick the items up. These are items that the taxpayer has paid for once through their federal taxes, but now don't have to pay the local tax.”

Police: Surplus program provides for everyday needs

The 1033 program provides Aiken Public Safety, along with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office and the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, more than just MRAPs and grenade launchers to fire tear gas.

Local departments have received military surplus items such as seat belt cutters, first-aid kits, shoes, bags for equipment and even an ice and water machine.

“One of the things we did get was blankets, which we then used at the detention center,” Capt. Eric Abdullah with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office said. “Again, that's something that was needed, and there was no impact to local taxpayers. We've gotten first-aid kits, which each deputy received, we've gotten book bags to carry equipment. I think we've saved Aiken County residents past the $1 million point.”

Any kind of surplus equipment received is used not only for the protection of officers, but the protection of life, according to Lt. Tim Thornton with the North Augusta Department of Public Safety.

“We train with most equipment specifically for unfortunate situations where life is put in jeopardy, like when there's active shooter situations happening all over the country,” Thornton said. “North Augusta just wants to use any equipment available to us and be prepared to use it if it did happen in our town.”

Military surplus program criticism

After Sept. 11, the military surplus program grew astronomically as troops returned from the battlefield, and surplus equipment began to build.

The program's expansion spurred several articles questioning the practices within the program. In an investigation by The Associated Press last year, the news agency found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in military surplus equipment allocated by the program since 1990 went to law enforcement agencies in rural areas with very few officers and small amounts of crime.

In light of the Ferguson issues, The New York Times published an updated interactive map, where with just a click of a finger, readers can gloss over how much specific military surplus gear their county has acquired through the federal government.

Aiken County has 77 night-vision pieces, 52 assault rifles, three body-armor pieces, two grenade launchers used to fire tear gas and two mine-resistant vehicles.

This information was provided by the Department of Defense. Some of the equipment was received prior to local departments joining the program.

More than blankets, first-aid kits and shoes

Last year, the North Augusta Department of Public Safety obtained a Navistar Defense's 2008 Mine Resistant Ambush Vehicle, or MRAP.

The item brought heavy criticism from taxpayers, but in truth, the department only paid $1,200 to transport the vehicle to North Augusta, instead of paying for the MRAP's full value of $658,000.

Thornton said the vehicle's primary use is for training and to better prepare the department's tactical unit for emergency situations.

“We usually try not to bring it out and get a lot of attention drawn to it,” Thornton said. “It's just something we have just in case a tragedy happens with active shooters, or hostage situations or where there's need for it. Other than for training, it stays secure in a facility.”

North Augusta's City Administrator Todd Glover said he believes in providing Public Safety with equipment to keep officers safe in the line of duty.

“Our men and women daily put themselves between law-abiding citizens and those who choose to break the law,” Glover said. “Unfortunately, there are some lawbreakers who have become increasingly violent. On the street, our officers generally just have a vest and pistol to protect them. In extreme situations where this vehicle could be utilized to protect our officers, I support using it, but only in the most extreme circumstances.”

The Aiken County Sheriff's Office also has a MRAP, but Abdullah said it's not something the department is taking out to grab a cup of coffee.

“The vehicle is used, but not just used for tactical situations,” Abdullah said, “It can be used in rescue operations. It allows us to get closer, since it's protective. It's strictly for hostage rescue or tactical team use.”

The Sheriff's Office also stressed that whenever the MRAP is on the road, a patrol car or fully marked officer equipment truck must drive alongside it.

Currently, Aiken Public Safety is on the list to receive one.

Local police response to militarization

The call by many to “demilitarize” police departments may be a “knee-jerk reaction,” according to Turno.

“It's a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated event that we see on TV,” Turno said, referring to the current situation in Ferguson. “Once people understand the program and see the true benefits, that's the key to understanding it. What you saw with the armored vehicle (in Ferguson) was protecting the officers – that's not what upset people. It was the man on top of the vehicle with the rifle pointed at people – that was the problem.”

Thornton agrees.

“I don't think we are militarizing our department,” Thornton said. “We're just using equipment that was made available to us through the military that helps us to achieve our goals of protecting property and security of life.”

Abdullah said he understands the intimidation some of the military surplus equipment can exhibit, but the equipment is beneficial to local law enforcement to better serve the residents of Aiken County.

“Regardless of the equipment we have, and I'll say this, our best tool is that we have our partnership with our citizens and have an open line of communication. That's the best tool we have in our tool bag. Without that, this organization cannot function.”

Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.