Small-town police departments are beefing up on military armor as U.S. wars overseas wind down.
And civil liberties activists are sounding new alarms about a militarized police force in a civilian population.
From Florida and Albany, N.Y., to the heartland of Ohio State University and the California coast, local police forces are acquiring weaponry for American streets that was meant for Afghanistan minefields.
Fort Pierce, Fla., a town of just over 40,000 on Florida’s Atlantic coast, ranks 56 for gun violence in the United States. But its often beleaguered police force is getting some high-powered help from the United States military in the form of a new armored vehicle known as an MRAP, for Mine Response Ambush Protection.
“The military was pretty much handing them out to the different cities and I put in the application for it, and we got pushed through, due to the violence in the city we have here,” Fort Pierce police Officer Keith Holmes told WPEC-Channel 12.
“If we need it, we have it,” Holmes’ boss, Chief Sean Baldwin told the station.
In New York, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple told the Washington Post the military surplus MRAP is just what the doctor ordered – at the right price.
“It’s armored. It’s heavy. It’s intimidating. And it’s free,” he said.
The armored vehicles cost about $500,000 for the Pentagon, but 165 of them were essentially given away to local police forces, for about $2,000, according to the Washington Post. A typical armored vehicle for a police SWAT team would run about $150,000 the paper found.
They’re intended to be used for protecting officers in hazardous situations – serving warrants on suspects thought to be dangerous – or beefing up routine police coverage, such as crowd control at Ohio State University football games, according to the Washington Post.
But what the police departments see as extra help they’re happy to get, the American Civil Liberties Union sees as trend with unhappy results for the American tradition of civilian policing.
“One of our concerns with this is it has a tendency to escalate violence,” ACLU Center for Justice senior counsel Kara Dansky told the Washington Post.
And the critics just aren’t in the ACLU. In December, a BizPac Review article reported how an MRAP vehicle being made a part of the police arsenal in Salinas, Calif., had brought a storm of criticism to the police departments Facebook page.
“That vehicle is made for war. Do not use my safety to justify that vehicle,” one wrote. “The Salinas Police Department is just a bunch of cowards that want to use that vehicle as intimidation and to terrorize the citizens of this city.”
Holmes, the Fort Pierce officer, told WPEC he understood critics’ concerns, but said the military armor fits the bill even for smaller department.
“I agree to a certain extent its overkill but for the cost, for $2,000, yes, it’s what we need,” he said.