Tons of military equipment donated to Minnesota police, sheriffs

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 5:41 PM

Police get military surplus, often with no training.

– The war, at least parts of it, has come home now.

Tons of surplus military equipment, some last used in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being given to local cops and sheriffs by the Department of Defense.

Pine County has a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), built to protect troops from explosions. The Rochester Police Department has an armored truck. The town of Royalton (population 1,242) has a grenade launcher.

The Pentagon offers no training for these weapons. Some police departments admit to having few ready uses for them.

The nationwide trend was put on stark display last week in the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over the police shooting death of an unarmed teen. The town at times resembled a war zone, with officers clad in full body armor brandishing M16 rifles and firing rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators.

The police response was widely criticized as excessive and amateurish. Missouri’s governor responded by ordering the department to stand aside; he told the state’s highway patrol to assume responsibility for policing the town and imposed a state of emergency Saturday.

‘Warfighter to Crimefighter’

Since its inception in 1997, the surplus program has transferred more than $4.3 billion worth of property — $449 million in 2013 alone. A coordinator in each state determines who gets what equipment.

Part of the allure for local police is the lack of cost — they pay only the shipping to acquire the surplus equipment. In the past couple of years Minnesota’s law enforcers have collected more than 8,500 pieces of military equipment through the program, including 2,300 M16ES, boots and night-vision goggles, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Much of the stuff is as benign as sleeping bags and tents. The city of Breckenridge, near the North Dakota border, got gymnastics equipment and an indoor rock-climbing wall.

Still, it’s the MRAPs and Humvees that get the attention.

The St. Cloud Police Department rolled out its MRAP during a snowy day last year. The $400,000 vehicle with less than 3,600 miles on it was acquired and retrofitted for about $14,000. The department’s previous SWAT vehicle was an old ambulance.

St. Cloud couldn’t get federal funding to upgrade its SWAT vehicles, so it pursued the option of getting a used one. The department’s drivers have all taken special training and are certified at the nearby Minnesota Highway Safety Center, which developed a course for officers. Besides a new coat of paint, cameras and more lights, the MRAP has additional heated mirrors for safety.

St. Cloud’s SWAT team has used the MRAP 10 times, including last month after a Benton County sheriff’s deputy was shot at.

Lt. Jeff Oxton, deputy commander of the department’s SWAT team, said he has heard some criticism that the use of the massive vehicle could be seen as overkill.

“We do the same things, we just do it in a safe manner,” he said.

To receive an MRAP, law enforcement agencies need to justify its use, such as in response to active shooter situations, SWAT and drug arrests; show the ability to pay for repairs and maintenance; and have restricted access to the vehicle.

“It is prudent to allow law enforcement agencies to use MRAPs versus scrapping them or allowing them to sit in storage,” said Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill.

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