While it is easy to understand why police like to be better armed than the people they have to arrest, many Americans are expressing growing concern that American police are becoming too much like military soldiers, with mounting evidence to back up this uneasy reality.
Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, estimates that SWAT Teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980, but are now used around 50,000 times per year. Indeed, articles in both USA Today and Gannet document how they have been used in Baltimore & Dallas to break up poker games.
Is it appropriate to have police enter a home helmeted and masked, guns drawn, knocking down the door with a battering ram when the purpose of the raid is to find $1,000 worth of clothes and electronics allegedly bought with a stolen credit card? Such is the case in Iowa, where police found none of these things, but arrested two people in the house on unrelated charges.
Part of the problem is that the courts have smiled on SWAT raids. They often rely on ‘no-knock’ warrants, which authorize police to force their way into a home without announcing themselves. This once was considered unconstitutional behavior, but the Supreme Court has ruled that police may enter a house without knocking if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that announcing their presence would be dangerous or allow the suspect to destroy evidence.
Against this backdrop, we have the recent acquisition by the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department of $700,000 MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that is larger than a rhinoceros and make a Hummer look like a VW Beatle. I stumbled upon it through a video posted by a colleague on facebook of two guys that videotaped it while driving down S. Michigan Avenue on a cold winter’s day.
Video below (NSFW audio)
Big Grants for Big Guns
According to an article in ‘The Economist’, federal cash first used to wage war on drugs and then on terror has paid for much of the heavy weaponry used by SWAT teams across the United States. Between 2002 and 2011 the Dept. of Homeland Security disbursed $35 billion in grants to state and local police. And the Pentagon offers surplus military weaponry to local police departments. By 2005 it had provided gear to more than 17,000 law-enforcement agencies; and apparently Saginaw County is the latest recipient.
A recent editorial in USA Today notes how something potentially sinister is happening across America. Small-town police departments across the country are acquiring free military grade weapons that could possibly be used against the very citizens and taxpayers that not only fund their departments, but who the police are charged with protecting. In the case of the MRAP acquired by Saginaw County, the cost of these vehicles is estimated at nearly $700,000 and the local unit of government (i.e. the taxpayer) is responsible for all repairs and upkeep moving forward after the acquisition, which is estimated to average $50,000 per year.
A reasonable person might ask why is there such a surplus of these vehicles when the Defense Department is threatening to cut jobs anytime Congress talks about defense cuts? The main reason is that as we draw down from two major equipment-laden wars, much of this equipment is now being returned to the U.S.A. And by passing down still good equipment to municipal law enforcement, it allows the defense industry to ask for more funding for even more equipment. So much for spending priorities.
Will militarizing America’s main streets make them safer, or just more fearful?
Recently I sat down with Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel to discuss this latest taxpayer funded acquisition and pose the question of whether Small Town America should resemble a War Zone.
Review: When did you acquire this MRAP and how many vehicles have you acquired from the Pentagon?
Federspiel: We received a Humvee last year from the military and got that for free. The reason we acquired that is because we have a special unit of doctors from the community that go on every SWAT raid. Their main purpose is to protect the members of the SWAT team if someone gets injured, so we need a vehicle to get our men in and out of a situation as safely as possible. We put a medical emblem on that vehicle and it is equipped for specialized use for our physicians.
As for the MRAP it is a behemoth and even makes me say, ‘Wow!’. It’s a big vehicle and did not come from overseas, but was a training vehicle used in Macomb County. It only has 3000 miles on it and the army designated it for a local law enforcement agency, which my Under-Sheriff caught on a wire and we decided to pursue.
I don’t anticipate we will ever use it and certainly hope we won’t. We’ll maintain it and make it available as a heavy transport and rescue vehicle. In the three decades that I’ve been in law enforcement the criminal element we deal with on a daily basis has out gunned and out manned us; and we can never be put in a position where we’re caught flat-footed.
My job as Sheriff is to really thing about what could happen. I’m not a doomsday thought person, but I do ask what types of situations we could find ourselves in. Let’s not forget about Timothy McVeigh who was from Michigan and blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City with explosives. We’re the largest law enforcement agency in Saginaw County and I work directly for the people. My responsibility is to protect them and we need a vehicle like in case something bad happens.
Review: There is growing concern across America about the local militarization of law enforcement, not just because of things like the MRAP but because police now have assault rifles in their cars, body armor – a number of items that are way-beyond the realm of a billy club and pistol. Do you think equipment suited for soldiers in Afghanistan is suitable for use here at home?
Federspiel: This equipment is suited for the military and I’m here to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Michigan, so if I’m given a tool by the federal government that every citizen pitched in for, because we purchased it with our money, then as I noted earlier, I want to be prepared should something terrible happen. I hope that I never have to use it.
Review: In order to get these vehicles did you need to make promises to the government in exchange? Rarely do we get something for nothing and I’ve read that the government will request that the local recipient share radio frequencies and operational data with the federal government. Is that happening?
Federspiel: Nope. The only stipulation required is that we can’t sell it on E-Bay and that it must be used for a legitimate law enforcement purpose. We have to be collaborative in the sense that if the city police get in a situation and need a vehicle that nobody else has, then we will call out a team and use it for whatever emergency is required.
Review: Can you give me some scenarios and examples that have happened where this MRAP would have enhanced the safety of residents?
Federspiel: Not necessarily in Saginaw County, but I don’t live in a vacuum. Since I’ve been Sheriff I remember an incident in California involving bank robbers with high powered rifles penetrating vests – they could have used the MRAP. Theatre shootings are happening all over the place. Should we have a major incident I’d much rather have this in my back pocket; and God-forbid, if somebody called and said seven people were walking down Bay Road shooting through the vests of police officers, then you can rest assured that vehicle is coming out.
Heavy transport and rescue is what it’s about. The bottom line is that I’m trying to prepare with limited resources for a catastrophe. Nobody thought anybody would fly two 747’s into the World Trade Center; and here we have Hemlock Semi-Conductor and Dow Chemical down the road and important infrastructure to protect. As noted earlier, I’m not a doomsayer, but I believed in being prepared. If I’m given an opportunity to receive a tool that all I have to do is start up and make sure is running, I’ll take it. And if I’m Sheriff for four years and never need to use it then I will thank God.
Review: How is the mileage for the MRAP and how expensive is it to maintain? I’ve read they cost $50,000 to maintain because of all the rare heavy parts.
Federspiel: It gets five miles per gallon, which is another reason that it sits. I suppose if it was used on a regular basis it would be costly to maintain, but this only has 3000 miles and was used as a training vehicle, which is why we took it. It’s in great condition, almost new; and if there is any maintenance required we will utilize our Drug Forfeiture Fund, so we won’t need to take anything out of the budget to maintain it. All we do is make sure its running and that the battery is charged and we drive it around the parking lot. Wieland Truck Supply checked it out and painted it for free as a public service, so no money was expended by the taxpayer.
Review: Do you feel that this move to militarize the police across the country violates the constitutional prohibition against converting the police to a standing army?
Federspiel: No, not in our case. I can’t answer for every agency that drives Humvees on duty or make public displays of their equipment. Some communities do and I see why that behavior is being questioned. It leaves you with an uneasy feeling and we don’t want that as a country and we have to be careful of that. I see why people have the concern and want to emphasize that I work for the people of Saginaw County.
If a majority of the people read your article and say, ‘My God, I don’t want this at all’ then I will give the MRAP back to the army. But I can tell you that the criminal element has also become more militarized. We had a cocaine dealer that had a military flak jacket and an AK47 to deal with. But I understand the public concern. And as I say, I don’t work for the Federal Government, I work for Saginaw County. My duty is to protect the Constitution and the people of Saginaw County.
Review: On a slightly un-related matter, there’s a bill in Lansing that would prohibit asset forfeiture without a conviction. How would that impact your budget?
Federspiel: It doesn’t. I don’t operate with any reliance on asset forfeiture. As a matter of fact, we may seize property, but never utilize it until the court proceedings are finalized. I don’t need a state statute to tell me to do that because I wait until the court process and every legality is exhausted before relying upon seized assets.
We may store seized property, but never use it for anything until the legal process is complete. People may think we’re always doing that, but very rarely will we seize any vehicle or cash – it has to be an extreme and blatant situation. Our job is to protect persons and property first and foremost, and it’s not our job to look for drug dealers and asset forfeiture – I tell my staff that all the time.
I don’t answer to a Board or a Chief. I answer to the people. I think it’s healthy to have these types of discussions. We budget enough out of asset forfeiture to take care of our drug dogs, but we don’t rely upon it for salaries or much of anything else. Some agencies play lose and fast with the rules, but we do not. Even if the law says you can use seized property before conviction, we have a higher standard, because the people of Saginaw County feel that way.
I work for the people and they give me the direction of which way to go and you help me find that direction, so I appreciate you doing this story.