As wars wind down, small-town police inherit armored vehicles

Hundreds of counties have MRAPs — and more are on their way

(Department of Defense/Yahoo News)
(Department of Defense/Yahoo News)

Robert Shellmyer was relieved to see last week at his hometown’s 175th anniversary celebration that the local police department’s new prized possession was not driving alongside the tractors and floats in the parade.

That’s because a 45,000-pound, explosion-resistant vehicle from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might spoil the mood.

Shellmyer, a 78-year-old city councilman for the small town of Washington, Iowa, was the sole local politician to vote against the department of 12 police officers getting the free MRAP — short for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle — from the Defense Department three months ago. Washington is one of hundreds of towns and cities to get a recycled MRAP from the Pentagon over the past year and a half.

“Here’s the thing,” Shellmyer says. “Washington, Iowa, has 8,000 people. We have an MRAP now. We have a SWAT team. We have [police] dogs, and we have a SWAT team transportation vehicle that’s not armored.”

The city councilman began to think: “Goodness, this is overkill.”

But as a new report by the ACLU demonstrates, Washington’s use of military tactics and equipment has become the norm. Most of America’s police departments now have special paramilitary units — called SWAT teams — to respond to emergency situations, conduct drug raids and even, in some cases, patrol the streets. In the past few years, more of these SWAT teams are getting armored vehicles provided by the federal government to expand their capabilities.

Law enforcement leaders say the increased military equipment and tactics are necessary to respond to violent emergency events such as school shootings. Critics counter that the militarization of police causes needless violence, and that SWAT teams are not primarily being used to respond to extreme emergency events. The ACLU report found that 46 civilians were injured in 818 SWAT raids over two years in 11 states. Children were present in the home in 14 percent of the raids the group studied. Sixty percent of the time, police had a search warrant for a drug offense. Only 7 percent of the SWAT deployments the ACLU studied were for hostage or active shooter scenarios.

The MRAPs, designed to protect U.S. soldiers from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, are now providing more firepower to these raids thanks to the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which began in the late 1980s to recycle old military equipment to local police. (That includes tens of thousands of machine guns, as well as more quotidian items such as office furniture and computers.) The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, provides millions of dollars in grants to local police to buy lighter armored vehicles, like BearCats, to combat terrorism or drug running. (Keene, New Hampshire, received a DHS grant on the strength of an application that listed its annual pumpkin festival as one of several potential terrorist targets.)

Unlike when they apply for DHS grants, police departments do not have to make the case that they are facing a terror threat to receive an MRAP under the Defense Department program. The Pentagon has given away 601 MRAPs since it began unloading the vehicles last year. That's on top of the more than 5,000 Humvees they've requisitioned since 1994. The demand for the hulking machines is growing.

[See if your county has an MRAP here.]

A government website shows two different kinds of armored vehicles available for free form the Pentagon to police departments.
A government website shows two different kinds of armored vehicles available for free form the Pentagon to police departments.

“There’s been a real steady increase in police stations taking advantage of this,” said Mark Wright, a Defense Department spokesman. “It’s a heck of a good deal. ... ‘Here’s the MRAP free of charge. You’ve got to pay for maintenance and gas, but other than that we’ll take care of the rest.’”

Police departments can cruise for MRAPs and other free military equipment online. A government website that advertises the available equipment shows armored vehicles covered in American flags and branded “POLICE.” Police departments are asked to specify if they want an armored vehicle that is tracked, like a tank, or one that is on wheels. The government checks every year to make sure the vehicles are all still there.

The supply of extra MRAPs is likely to only increase — the government spent $50 billion to produce 27,000 of them in 2007.

“Now that the Iraq and Afghanistan war has wound down, the military has a tremendous amount of surplus,” said Pete Kraska, a criminology professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied SWAT teams for 25 years. But Kraska doesn’t think it’s a good thing for local police to inherit those leftovers. Though military-style tactics are necessary to respond to extreme situations — such as an active shooter — SWAT teams are predominantly being used to raid private homes in search of drugs. The decommissioned Defense Department gear is likely just to encourage more of those raids carried out by police wearing battle fatigues, another item the 1033 program doles out.

Because the Pentagon just started handing out the MRAPs in 2013, it’s unclear how they’re being used. Some SWAT teams use them just for transportation to a raid, but at least one department has used the vehicle to bust through a door. The ACLU wasn’t able to determine how often the vehicles were used by SWAT teams, according to the report’s author Kara Dansky.

Many of the armored vehicles end up in hamlets like Washington, which might seem surprising, except that SWAT teams have grown exponentially in small towns over the past 20 years. Kraska found that 80 percent of small towns had SWAT teams by 2005, up from just 20 percent in 1980. More than 90 percent of city departments have the special units.

Police say the vehicles are necessary to protect officers in a violent world.

William Brister, a captain in the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana, said his department decided it needed an armored vehicle after a shootout in 2003 left two officers dead and four more wounded. The Rapides SWAT team was delivering a search warrant to a gunman’s house after he was suspected of shooting at a police car the week earlier. Hundreds of shots were fired over two hours, and one resident told the local paper at the time that it sounded like “a war zone.”

The MRAP could also come in handy for rescue missions after flooding or a hurricane, he said.

Warren County Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree poses in front the department's mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, in Queensbury, N.Y. The hulking vehicles, built for about $500,000 each at the height of the war, are among the biggest pieces of equipment that the Defense Department is giving to law enforcement agencies under a national military surplus program. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The armored vehicle ended up costing the Rapides department $15,000 through various state and transportation fees, which Brister calls “a good chunk of change,” but he believes it’s worth it. That’s not counting gas for the 75-gallon tank, though, or training, which the Pentagon doesn’t provide. “A guy from MRAP University” came and trained eight of the officers in how to operate the heavy vehicle, Brister said. For now, the hulking MRAP is just sitting in the yard near a police building.

In Washington, meanwhile, Shellmyer gets ribbed by the locals for the vehicle and the local media attention it’s garnered. “I go down to a little filling station, and there’s always two or three boys sipping coffee and they say, ‘Well Shellmyer, do you feel safer now that we have a tank?’”

The city councilman just shrugs it off. “We’re just trying to put the blanket over the top of it and hopefully people will forget we have it.”