The Defense Logistics Agency is the supply arm of the Department of Defense that runs the program. It brings salesmanship to the task, including a presentation with slick graphics, pulsating music, testimonials and the motto “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.”
Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole recently took some local criticism after he used the county’s MRAP with four members of its SWAT team to participate in what was billed as a “zombie apocalypse” training event. The event took place in southern Minnesota in June with an organization called ZERT, or Zombie Eradication Response Team. According to its website, ZERT uses the zombie as a metaphor for any natural or man-made disaster. It uses former Special Forces instructors to teach civilians useful methods of avoiding or surviving a “Zombie” event.
The Pine County Courier’s story featured a picture from the ZERT Facebook page showing Cole, his boonie hat in his hand and rifle magazines on his chest, with a cigar-chomping participant, standing in front of the county’s MRAP.
When Cole obtained the vehicle through the surplus program last year, he told a local newspaper that he planned to use it for search and rescue operations in Pine County’s swampy and heavily forested areas. He also said he planned to have the names of sponsors painted on the vehicle to help defray the costs of fuel and maintenance.
Cole, who is not running for re-election, did not return repeated calls for comment. His photo has been removed from the Facebook page.
Born in war on drugs
The increased use of military equipment by local law enforcement had its beginnings in the Reagan-era war on drugs in the 1980s. It was further expanded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The local use of military equipment and tactics such as SWAT teams has risen dramatically even as crime rates drop and violence against police has hit its lowest point since the 1950s.
“You’re getting domestic police officers and you’re arming them with military-type weapons and directing them in military-type uniform and telling them you’re fighting a war,” said Radley Balko, whose book “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” documents the trend to militarize police departments.
Chuck Samuelson, head of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls the furnishing of military equipment to police and sheriffs “bad public policy.”
“We’re worried about the hardware side of it, but we’re also worried about the training side of it,” he said. “Doors get kicked in. Bullets are flying, and they’re being used for ridiculous things.”
In Maricopa County, Ariz., the brakes on the sheriff department’s armored vehicle gave out during a botched drug raid and it slid down a hill, crushing a parked car. In a confluence of events that detractors found delicious, in Texas a few years ago a drone crashed into a SWAT team’s armored vehicle.
“I guess I’m not really sure its value is worth its costs,” Balko said. “The program does also transfer a lot of innocuous equipment like office furniture, computers, and such. I don’t think many would object to continuing that. But I think there’s a strong case to ending the transfer of weapons, uniforms and vehicles entirely. Keep gear designed for war with the military.”
A Democratic congressman, Hank Johnson of Georgia, plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns next month to curb to reverse police militarization. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee will review the program to determine if the Defense Department’s surplus equipment is being used as intended.
The cost of ‘free’
Some agencies are looking the gift war horse in the mouth and finding the free stuff isn’t worth it.
Police in Albuquerque, N.M., recently decided to get rid of their MRAP. In eight months, it was never used.