There were many things that defined the weeks of unrest this past summer in Ferguson, Mo. — but none more so than the images of police in full riot gear, using high-powered weapons and armored vehicles to control crowds on the streets. Those images sparked a national debate on the so-called “militarization” of local police forces across the country.

So how much firepower do departments need to protect and serve?

In the small town of Tyngsborough, some 40 miles north of Boston, woods and small ponds are easier to find than a downtown. Also nearly nonexistent is violent crime. Police Chief Richard Howe can’t even remember the last time there was a homicide — but that doesn’t stop him from preparing for the worst.

"Look around at where these school shootings have happened in this country," Howe said. "Do they happen predominately in just big cities? No, they don’t. They happen in small town America, and those individual small departments need to be prepared."

Part of that preparation includes a request for AR-15 rifles — a semiautomatic version of the M-16 combat rifle. Howe is hoping to obtain them through the Defense Department’s 1033 program — which transfers surplus military equipment to local law enforcement. Howe says the new rifles will augment those the department bought on its own.

"They're weapons that — as I said — can be purchased by a civilian with a [Firearms Identification Card] in Massachusetts," he said. "So how would it not be appropriate for a police department to have them for their officers?"

Tyngsborough is just the latest department to seek weapons through the DoD program. According to The Boston Globe, 82 local police departments have received military-grade rifles like the M-16 and M-14 in recent years — in West Springfield, police made headlines when it was revealed they received two grenade launchers. But Howe believes the weapons are just a small part of a program that fulfills basic needs for cash-strapped departments.

"In a lot of cases, it’s equipment that we need regardless," he said. "So if we weren’t getting it through this avenue, we would have to find a way to purchase it through our budgets."

Wading through bags and boxes in the bowels of Tyngsborough’s police building, deputy chief Chris Chronopulous shows me some of the basic supplies they’ve gotten through the 1033 program: boxes of racks used to store weapons, safety glasses similar to those you’d see on a construction site, and large vinyl bags that could store just about anything.

"Guys with their magazine or ammo, ammo dump boxes," Chronopulous said. "So they can carry ‘em and can connect to whatever they want with the snap system. So it’s a nice, vinyl, durable bag."

But Howe admits there’s a point at which adding firepower raises public alarm.

"I would expect that residents in this town expect that the police department is prepared — not unprepared," he said. "This is part of that preparation. If I were seeking out missile launchers and tanks, well I would think somebody would say, 'Wait a minute. Why would you need those?' I agree."

When I spoke with a few Tyngsborough residents at the local post office, they understood the need for arming police with military-grade rifles.

"I don’t think it hurts to have them trained in all kinds of weaponry," said Beverly Given. "I mean, every human being should be comfortable handling a weapon."

"My husband’s a teacher and we’ve talked about this, and definitely we’re for it," said Lynda Cornellier. "You can’t trust anybody nowadays."

But Merrimack College criminology professor Thomas Nolan says programs like 1033 are transforming local departments into militarized forces — with weapons that aren’t necessary for regular policing.

"Most officers are equipped with at least 50 rounds of ammunition, taser weapons, pepper spray weapons, so I think they’re already more than sufficiently equipped," Nolan said.

Nolan previously spent 27 years as a Boston police officer. He isn’t opposed to taking advantage of the 1033 program for basic equipment. But he worries that with high-powered weaponry, many departments risk losing touch with the communities they’re sworn to serve.

"It strains the relationship," Nolan. "I think great strides were made in the 1990s, particularly here in Boston and in Massachusetts in endorsing and privileging community policing principals."

Yet Boston police came under scrutiny late last year when then-commissioner Ed Davis proposed buying over 30 AR-15’s for the department. Then mayor-elect Marty Walsh opposed the plan. And now, according to Boston police, Davis’ successor William Evans does not see the weapons as “appropriate for the city of Boston.”

"Maybe the criticism’s right," said Rich Howe. "Then again I think it’s also important that if you’re being transparent, you feel that you are doing the right thing, to explain it."

But even with transparency, that doesn’t mean Massachusetts residents will agree that police should have such weapons.

Marshfield Police Chief Phillip Tavares and ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Jessie Rossman discussed the need for high-powered weapons by local police departments.