Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of Watchdog.org's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

The Militarization of the Media

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: June 13, 2014 - 2:13 PM

The “militarization of police” draws a lot of media fire lately, driven by the arrival of more 20-25 ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles in Minnesota and other states. It might be just as apt, however, to characterize the surge of coverage as the “militarization of the media.”

After all, the federal government’s 1033 Surplus Equipment Program goes back more than 20 years. In Minnesota, the program’s first armored vehicle arrived in Otter Tail County in 1994. Today, 24 armored trucks, seven MRAPs with 11 more reportedly on the way and seven Humvee utility trucks have been decommissioned by the military for use by Minnesota local law enforcement.

That’s one of the takeaways from the comprehensive list of military equipment procured by local and state law enforcement agencies posted for the first time this week by Watchdog Minnesota Bureau. To obtain military equipment, authorities must demonstrate a direct connection to their enforcement and apprehension mission.

The state list accounts for more than $25 million of surplus weapons, vehicles and other equipment obtained by 325 local police departments, 85 sheriffs’ offices and several state law enforcement agencies. Most likely authorities in your community or county made the cut.

8,600 items from the Law Enforcement Support Office of the Department of Defense have been transferred—2,900 weapons from M-16 rifles to .45 caliber pistols to 10 grenade launchers used for tear gas and smoke grenades.  Plus lots more routine supplies like furniture, first aid kits and generators.

A state official rattles off some of the options in a video posted online. “LEA (local enforcement agency) essentials such as handcuffs, riot shields, holsters, bayonets, sight reflexes, binoculars. Most anything that you can think of to support your law enforcement operation.”

Authorities say the program saves taxpayer money and police lives, but acknowledge increasing public concern over potential constitutional dangers.

“Any equipment this office owns, as long as I am sheriff, will be used only within the constraints of the constitution of this country,” said Sheriff Robin Cole about Pine County’s recently acquired MRAP. “That means when we use our vehicles to do some sort of police action, number one, someone’s life will be in dire jeopardy or we will have a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause to be using the vehicle in that way.”

One weapon that failed to make the state's military equipment list? No drones.

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