ST. CLOUD – 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.
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.
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources obtained four OH58 military helicopters, two that fly and two for parts. The aircraft have been used for wildlife surveys and for search and rescue but are aging. The DNR’s helicopters have been cost-efficient, but larger military aircraft, such as the Blackhawk, cost too much to keep in the air at $700 to $800 an hour, said Thomas Buker, acting chief pilot for the DNR.
“Economic-wise it’s just not a good use of taxpayer dollars,” Buker said.
Need a grenade launcher?
Then there is the Royalton grenade launcher.
The city’s police got it from another agency and Chief Adam Gunderson thought he could transfer it to another department. It could also be used for firing tear gas, but Gunderson said he has never purchased ammunition for it, and no one has come forward to take it off his hands.
The three-officer department in central Minnesota has used the surplus program to obtain more practical equipment, like optics for rifles and three new laptops, all for the cost of shipping. But a bemused Gunderson sees no value in his grenade launcher.
For now, it sits in the department’s gun safe.
“It’s just figuring out what to do with it,” Gunderson said. “The government doesn’t really want it back.”