HEMET, Calif. -

The stirring images out of Ferguson, Missouri resemble a war zone.

Police in full body armor toting assault rifles and tear gas, look more like soldiers than police officers.

Ferguson is just one of many police departments to tap into the ongoing federal Excess Property Program, also known as the 1033 program.  It offers decommissioned military gear to local law enforcement agencies.
  
"It has served its purpose and had some life in the military and is surplus, to benefit us here locally," explained Captain Ron Berry, Commander of the  the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. 

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department received a good chunk, including an armored "Peacekeeper" vehicle, 140 assault rifles, and a Vietnam-era helicopter.

The 1969 chopper was used by the U.S. Army as an observation aircraft. The Sheriff's department received it in 1995, and since going into service it's logged thousands of flight hours serving our county.

"We've benefited greatly in terms of search and rescue.  It's not just used for patrol, although these aircraft are used day and night to assist officers and the communities we serve," Berry said.
    
Berry adds the biggest benefit of the program is the money it helps agencies save. If the department bought the helicopter outright, it would have cost tax payers a million dollars.
   
"It gives law enforcement agencies the opportunity to get equipment they normally wouldn't be able to afford," said Chuck Menley, Range Master for the Palm Springs Police Department.

Equipment like the 18-ton M-RAP acquired by the Banning police, or M-16 assault rifles once used by the U.S. Army.  Palm Springs Police has 16 of them, but modified them.

When the agency received these rifles they were fully automatic and configured for military use. Palm Springs Police scaled them down for use on patrol.  

"They're not the current format the military uses but they are certainly serviceable for law enforcement," Menley said.    

Menley says the free equipment, even if it's old, used or a little outdated, is better than none at all.  

But how much is too much?  We asked the agencies if people should fear the tools they've amassed.

"They're not tanks, they're not military vehicles. They're used as protection of our officers and our communities," Berry said.

"People should be asking how it they are used, how they are deployed, and in what circumstances will they be deployed.  Not whether or not they should have it because there's clearly a need for it," Menley said.

A need some people in Ferguson continue to question.