Ferguson Conflict Highlights Militarization of Local Police
By: Hilary Powell
Auguast 22, 2014 — Large, virtually impenetrable trucks and tanks cruised St. Louis streets this week — a tactic used by the St. Louis Police Department and the Missouri National Guard to stop protests.
“What I’ve seen, they’re trying to trying to contain the situation,” says Jeff Biggs, the SWAT commander of Porter Co.
Mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs are designed for battle, but are increasingly appearing on city streets. It is part of a trend since 1991 of local law enforcement acquiring military surplus gear under the Pentagon’s 10-33 program.
“When people see images of these MRAP vehicles, it’s by nature an intimidating-looking vehicle because it looks out of place,” says Porter County Sheriff David Lain.
But more commonplace in places like Porter Co. Sheriff David Lain says his team has two armored vehicles, including one unused military truck called the peacekeeper, passed down from the armed forces in 1999.
“The sheriff’s department here has actually utilized unused military equipment for decades,” Lain says. “The intent, of the armor is defensive.”
Officials say it can help protect officers because criminals are using deadlier weapons. The trucks are built to withstand weapons, not to be used as weapons themselves.
“There are no weapons placed on these things,” Biggs says. “They’re for rescue, protection, to stop bullets.”
Porter co. safety officials say although these vehicles appear intimidating, they’re really just about protection. They say in the three to five instances annually they are called out and engaged by SWAT team, they’re used to protect innocents and serve as a barrier between the public and a potentially active and violent situation.
“You’re trying to keep people from harm’s way,” Biggs says.
And allow law enforcement to approach danger with protection.
“So, even the peacekeeper, an armored vehicle, we’ve used it to, there’s been times when we’ve been shot at on callouts, and we’ve moved that right in front of the house so that we can protect our officers and still contain the situation so it doesn’t go anywhere,” Biggs says.
He says the county’s SWAT team has used the peacekeeper on 40 operations in the last five year including a 2013 standoff in Jackson Township.
“A barricaded subject was shooting at us, when he saw officers in front of the house,” he says.
Suspect Eric Martin was charged with attempted murder after firing at police during a nine-hour standoff.
“Our detectives went in and you could see where it looked like he was tracking our officers as they were moving in front of the house,” Biggs says. “If we didn’t have that vehicle, then our officers would’ve been further away. If it ever became out of our control, our first thing we would do is probably call surrounding agencies for assistance.”
Department of defense records show Indiana has eight MRAPs including one owned by Northwest Regional SWAT team.
The SWAT team purchased the used armored vehicle from the army for one dollar.
Lain says the vehicles are usually donated to law enforcement agencies and that his office does not use tax payer money if the trucks are purchased.
“When proceeds from drugs or other assets are acquired from people convicted, we acquire either the equipment of the monies associated with that,” Lain says.
But some critics say local police are not military, and more oversight needs to accompany the armored gear.
Congressional legislation suggested in August from Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia seeks to limit the amount of military equipment that goes to local police.
Porter Co. officials say the use justifies the need.
“I’m not apologetic at all that we have this equipment,” he says. “It’s for the public’s protection. It’s so that we can better serve.”