ILLUSTRATION: ISABELLA CARAPELLA/ HUFFPOST; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

New Documents Show Pentagon Rubber-Stamping Police Requests For Military Gear

Police are citing racial justice protests and routine 911 calls to ask for armored vehicles built for a battlefield — and the Defense Department is buying it.

Last summer, as one city after another broke out in protest against the murder of George Floyd, some of the most enduring images were not of the demonstrators, but of the police: decked out in riot gear, aiming automatic weapons at peaceful crowds, and riding around on armored vehicles built for war.

The crackdowns on protesters renewed furious demands to end a suite of federal programs that have put billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons in the hands of local police. President Joe Biden singled out the most infamous of these — the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which transfers weapons and equipment from America’s foreign wars directly to domestic law enforcement agencies — for special condemnation. “Surplus military equipment for law enforcement? They don’t need that,” Biden said last July. “The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into the neighborhood.” 

But as calls to demilitarize the police have intensified, so has the belief in countless police departments that they need the tools and weapons of war to police America’s cities and towns. 

Under a Freedom of Information Act request, HuffPost has exclusively obtained hundreds of letters that local law enforcement agencies wrote to the Department of Defense in 2017 and 2018 making the case to receive an armored vehicle under the 1033 program. 

The documents reveal that hundreds of police departments across the country, in communities of all sizes, are willing to deploy armored vehicles to carry out even the most routine tasks: making traffic stops; serving search warrants; responding to domestic violence; responding to people threatening suicide.

In these requests, law enforcement officials predicted they would roll out these vehicles into their communities 10, 20, 40, 70, or more than 100 times a year, and in situations that are not automatically dangerous. The sheriff of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, went so far as to assert that a police officer could die serving a notice of a civil lawsuit — and so his agency ought to have two armored vehicles. 

“Deputies and police officers die every day performing routine assignments,” he wrote, echoing the you-never-know logic of hundreds of similar requests. “It is always better to have protection and not need it than to have none while in need.”

One department after another described broad criteria for using an armored vehicle that bordered on cavalier: whenever police are going somewhere they believe someone could have a gun, even legally; whenever a suspect “could” become violent.

The requests aren’t limited to a particular region or type of community, suggesting the sheer ubiquity of the militarized mindset inside ordinary police departments. Cities claimed they need armored vehicles because they police dense, urban areas, while rural towns claimed they need the vehicles because their population is spread out. Whatever the size and makeup of their community, agencies marshaled that as evidence of their need to be extremely well-armored.

The requests differed sharply from how police justify and defend the use of military-style weapons to the public. In public, law enforcement agencies tend to say that they will only break out armored vehicles in rare cases of extreme violence, such as mass shootings. “With everything that we ask of local law enforcement, why would we ask them to have anything less than the best safety equipment available?” asked Patrick Yoes, the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, in a recent interview.

The 1,200-plus pages of documents HuffPost obtained expose the flimsy pretext that police will only use military gear in a genuine crisis — and how explicitly many police acknowledge that their goal is to intimidate vulnerable members of their communities.

In response to these requests, the Pentagon has provided thousands of small-town police and sheriff agencies with vehicles built to withstand conditions of war. The 1033 program has also distributed billions of dollars’ worth of helicopters, body armor, night vision equipment, ammunition, rifle sights, machine guns and assault rifles.

The most iconic piece of equipment is the MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, which was designed to protect American troops in Iraq from IED blasts. Once they roll onto American streets, police almost invariably use armored vehicles to transport SWAT teams to carry out drug-related search warrants and to crack down on people exercising their right to protest.

“The major impact of using this military gear for everyday policing is on the lives of Black and brown people,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. 

Opponents of the 1033 program are becoming fearful that they will never rein it in. Despite his comments last summer, Biden has failed to seize multiple opportunities to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 program. The White House prepared an executive order to limit the program his very first week in office, but Biden never signed it. House Democrats have introduced multiple bills to limit or end the program and openly called on the president to take action on his own, but Biden has remained silent. 

And Democrats’ sweeping proposals for police reform, which would significantly limit the 1033 program, have reportedly stalled, with rising crime rates making lawmakers wary of appearing at odds with the police. In late July, Punchbowl reported that bipartisan negotiations over police reform led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are on “life support.” 

‘They’re Ready For War’

The 1,200-plus pages of documents HuffPost obtained expose the flimsy pretext that police will only use military gear in a genuine crisis — and how explicitly many police acknowledge that their goal is to intimidate vulnerable members of their communities. The requests also reveal how thoroughly many police have learned to fear the public as potential combatants, how automatically they are able to perceive everyday situations as potentially lethal, and how fervently they believe that their fear justifies extreme countermeasures for everyday conflicts. A few times, police departments even referred to their officers as “troops” or to police shifts as “tours of duty.”

The letters also reflect a disturbing comfort with — even an expectation of — using military gear and tactics to respond to civil demonstrators. Multiple agencies explicitly asked for armored vehicles to use at protests against police violence toward Black people and pipeline resistance led by Native Americans.

Years before Floyd’s murder made Minneapolis the epicenter of nationwide protests, multiple agencies in Minnesota requested armored vehicles to use in the event of “civil protest involving mass arrests.” Other agencies around the country cited potential “civil disturbances” “civil disorder” “civil unrest” and “crowd control” as reasons they ought to have artillery-proof Humvees and mine-resistant trucks. 

The sheriff’s department in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, which participated in the heavily armed crackdown on people protesting the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cited those protests as one reason it needed three armored vehicles: a Humvee, an up-armored Humvee, and a six-wheeled MRAP. (Asked if using an armored vehicle to respond to a civil demonstration could erode community trust, a sheriff spokesperson said community trust is preserved when law enforcement shows it can keep the public safe.)

Officers push protesters with an armored vehicle at a July 10, 2016 protest of Alton Sterling’s killing in Baton Rouge,
Officers push protesters with an armored vehicle at a July 10, 2016 protest of Alton Sterling’s killing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Footage by reporter Rebekah Allen

In 2017, the police chief of Northwoods, Missouri, requested an armored vehicle to confront the local protest movement that had grown out of the Ferguson uprising after the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. One of those protesters was Northwoods native, activist and future Democratic Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo), who is now a co-sponsor of legislation to eliminate the 1033 program. 

The force with which police confronted racial justice protesters last year, in other words, was not a matter of being caught by surprise, but the product of deliberate preparation.

“It seems like they’re ready for war. And you’re going to war against your citizens, your taxpayers, your folks who are calling out injustice,” said Jae Shepherd, a community organizer in St. Louis, in a recent interview. Shepherd leads Defund SLMPD and has been chased and attacked by riot cops at many small, peaceful protests in the years since Ferguson. ”We were the ones experiencing violence.”

During the 2016 raid on Standing Rock, North Dakota, dozens of police swarmed and evicted Native American residents to make way for the Dakota Access Pipeline using armored vehicles. 

“I think it’s the ugliest day I’ve seen,” Joye Braun, one of the hundreds of protesters forcibly removed from Standing Rock, told HuffPost. More than 100 officers, many wearing riot gear, formed a half-circle around one end of the camp with two armored vehicles at the center. From there, they swept in on Native Americans who were holding signs or huddled in prayer and arrested them en masse.

“It reminded me of every dictatorial regime that I’ve ever seen pictures of or heard about or come across in all my travels,” Braun said. “But it was here.”

It seems like they’re ready for war. And you’re going to war against your citizens, your taxpayers, your folks who are calling out injustice. We were the ones experiencing violence. Jae Shepherd, Defund SLMPD

Braun’s sister, who watched the assault play out on social media, was serving in Afghanistan at the time, and she texted Braun which pieces of equipment looked identical to the ones on her army base. 

A year later, multiple law enforcement agencies in South Dakota had requested armored vehicles for when the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines continued south. Pennington County, South Dakota, for example — which had sent officers to assist the raid on Standing Rock — requested an MRAP and an up-armored Humvee to confront anti-pipeline protesters.

The requests also reflect the stark racial inequalities in whom police treat as dangerous.

One agency that requested and received an MRAP was the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin. Kenosha is where, last August, police shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back, causing the city to erupt in protests. Three days into the unrest, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who had deputized himself to defend property from the protesters, shot three people and was allowed by officers to walk away, his rifle still dangling from his shoulder. 

In his request, the Kenosha County sheriff had included “active shooters” as the kind of threat his department could more easily apprehend if he had an MRAP. And Kenosha officers did have armored vehicles on the scene during the protests. But while they used those vehicles to intimidate protesters and shower them in tear gas, the armored convoy that encountered Rittenhouse — with his hands raised in surrender as bystanders shouted that he was the shooter — drove right by. 

Video shows that one of the armored vehicles that breezed by Rittenhouse after the shooting was an MRAP. 

A squad of armored vehicles glides by Kyle Rittenhouse moments after he shot two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25, 20
A squad of armored vehicles glides by Kyle Rittenhouse moments after he shot two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25, 2020.

Many of these letters invite broader criticism of the nation’s law enforcement system and the ways it lacks rigorous standards and is prone to abuse. Dozens of agencies in New York, Mississippi and New Jersey said they would pay for the vehicle upkeep through asset forfeiture, a corruption-prone practice in which law enforcement seizes cash and valuables from people accused but not yet convicted of a crime. (New Jersey has since changed its laws to require a conviction.) The Hancock County, Indiana sheriff’s office said it could fund maintenance of the vehicle from commissary sales to people in county jail.

Vetting appeared to be minimal. The sheriff of Big Horn County, Montana, appears to have ignored a 2015 state law prohibiting police from obtaining surplus vehicles from the military and requested a Peacekeeper. The sheriff and the state-appointed coordinator for the 1033 program, who approved the ask, did not respond to requests for comment.

And with 8,000 law enforcement agencies participating in the 1033 program, virtually anyone could wind up with military equipment. One police chief who requested a vehicle for his department, Chris West of Canadian County, Oklahoma, attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that turned into a riot at the U.S. Capitol. He has denied joining the mob that descended on the building. In a string of since-deleted Facebook posts appearing to belong to West, he wrote, “I’m okay with using whatever means necessary to preserve America and save FREEDOM & LIBERTY” and said he wanted to see several members of Congress “in jail” “or worse.” Pentagon records show his department already has at least one mine-resistant vehicle and four dozen automatic rifles. 

The letters are also rife with justifications that a reasonable person might consider a stretch. 

Because the Defense Department asks a town’s population, agencies found infinite ways to inflate their populations, noting that the daytime brings out-of-towners to their schools, colleges, shopping centers, beaches, “numerous doctor’s buildings,” a “world-class equestrian event facility,” and a private label pet food factory.

Countless departments pointed out that they were home to attractions and infrastructure that are essentially ubiquitous: turnpikes, highway overpasses, train trestles, a bus garage, hotels, a casino, hospitals and surgical centers, business parks, “abundant day care facilities” government buildings, movie theaters, amusement parks, county fairs, college sports tournaments, and minor league sports stadiums. Not one but two agencies pointed out that they should get consideration because their jurisdiction was located near the fifth-busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest.

With 8,000 law enforcement agencies participating in the 1033 program, virtually anyone could wind up with military equipment.

HuffPost will make the documents behind this story available to the public in the coming weeks. Of note to local reporters and civic groups, agencies must explain how they can afford to maintain an armored vehicle, who can use it, and which members of local government signed off on the request. Not every agency that requested an armored vehicle received one — inventory is limited — but every request referred to in this story received Pentagon approval.

The sheer volume of requests runs counter to what the public says it wants out of its police departments. A majority of Americans consistently oppose the police use of military gear and weapons, with a much smaller proportion supporting it. Those in favor may be comfortable in the knowledge that police are using military gear to target someone else: White people are more likely to support police militarization but less likely to have SWAT raids take place in their communities, which happen disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Braun, the Standing Rock protester, says she regularly sees police in her neighborhood responding to ordinary calls for help with a SWAT team, even years after the pipeline protests.

“Those agencies wanted that equipment not for [the pipeline] — that’s the original excuse — but to go up against the Indigenous community that lives here,” she said. “They consider us ‘the bad thing’ here.” 

A Trail Of Destruction

Whatever police may claim about needing to prepare for extreme events, most departments don’t let their military equipment gather dust. 

“If they have the equipment, they use it,” said Sarah Turberville, director of the Constitution project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

And the single most common way agencies use military gear is on SWAT raids to serve search warrants for drugs. 

In the seminal look at how police use military gear, training and tactics — a 2014 report from the ACLU titled “War Comes Home” — researchers found that an overwhelming majority of SWAT deployments were to serve search warrants, mainly for drugs. Most of the people those raids targeted were Black or Latino. As justification, the SWAT teams frequently claimed they believed there were firearms inside the home, but they were wrong two-thirds of the time. 

The raids also left a trail of destruction. Property damage was common, as was the use of flashbang grenades, which cause temporary loss of vision and hearing and can also burn property and people. MRAPs are so heavy that they can crush underground sewage lines. In extreme cases, SWAT raids have destroyed entire homes.

SWAT officers in San Bernardino County, California, rammed a car with armored vehicles and stunned the driver with flash-bang
SWAT officers in San Bernardino County, California, rammed a car with armored vehicles and stunned the driver with flash-bang grenades after he refused to pull over. Footage by ABC 30.

Instances of lethal violence were rare but devastating. In 2010, a member of Detroit’s special response team shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones on the couch where she had been sleeping. In 2011, a Framingham, Massachusetts, SWAT officer shot and killed 68-year-old Eurie Stamps while he was lying facedown, just as officers had ordered. Just about every year brings an example of SWAT officers killing or injuring unarmed people, most of whom are Black. 

“The question all this raises is, why should all of these local police departments be getting free armored vehicles in order to carry out drug raids?” Takei said.

The justifications for these raids carry grave civil rights implications, he added. Someone served with a search warrant hasn’t been convicted of that crime, and it’s not illegal to own a firearm; nearly half of American households have a gun.

A 2018 analysis of more than 8,000 raids in Maryland found that SWAT teams were disproportionately deployed in Black neighborhoods, even when controlling for crime rates. More than 90% of raids in that study, which was based on the police’s own data, were to serve search warrants. The study also found that SWAT teams neither reduced crime nor improved officer safety. Instead, the main thing all those raids did increase was mistrust of the police.

Multiple agencies in the documents HuffPost obtained pointed to their region’s high poverty rate as justification for their requests. Police in Corsicana, Texas, noted that “a large portion of the population [is] considered to be in poverty” and “instances of violent crime and mental illness are common in the area”; it asked for, and received, an MRAP. (The city’s own data shows police are more likely to arrest Black and Hispanic residents during traffic stops.)

Beaver County, Pennsylvania, cited its “battle” against people who have opioid addictions: “We are constantly battling the drug dealers on the streets and the addicted civilians that are committing crimes to support their habits. We are in need of an armored vehicle that can be used for drug interdiction and critical incidents.”

Some of the justifications in the letters shocked the civil rights advocates who spoke with HuffPost. 

Many departments offered the Pentagon an extremely broad criteria for rolling out vehicles built for a battlefield. For example, Sand Springs, Oklahoma, police proposed using a vehicle for any “operations where suspects can become violent.” Civil rights advocates were alarmed by the nonchalance of departments saying they would use armored vehicles to respond to civil demonstrations.

And experts found the vision many law enforcement agencies had — of blanketing the country in military-style equipment under the auspices of community protection — deeply disturbing. Many departments rationalized that they needed their own armored vehicle because the next nearest department with a vehicle was an hour, 30 minutes, or just 20 minutes away. Okaloosa County, Florida, wanted a second armored personnel carrier for the few times a year that a neighboring county borrowed their LENCO BearCat, saying those events “[leave] our county vulnerable and without any armored personnel carriers available.”

“If a sheriff’s department in a very small community obtains an armored vehicle and military weaponry for an event that may occur, at most, once every couple of years, how is that military equipment and weaponry going to be used in the meantime, and on what communities?” Takei said.

Ultimately, a situation is an emergency if police decide that it’s an emergency.

In Burbank, California, in 2015, police dispatched an SWAT team in a LENCO BearCat to respond to a “barricaded suspect” who refused to get out of a stolen sedan. The person was a Black man showing signs of mental illness. Police pumped irritating gas into the car and arrested him wearing only his underwear. There are no reports that he was armed, and Chief Mike Albanese told HuffPost he appeared to be sleeping.

Albanese called this “a good, safe outcome,” and a justifiable use of the SWAT team. 

“This is the wild card with law enforcement,” he said. “Is this someone having a mental health episode? On a five-day binge of methamphetamine? Someone wanted in five states? Is he just exhausted?” 

It would have been even safer to approach the car with two armored vehicles, he said, in order to box the car in. Documents show that in 2017, the agency requested an up-armored Humvee to go along with its BearCat, saying that every SWAT operation “requires the use of at least two armored vehicles.”

“The community expectation is, when there is a critical and violent event, you have the equipment to manage it,” Albanese said. “The deployment of the SWAT team is so infrequent here in Burbank that when it does occur, it should resonate that something serious is going on here.”

Empty Reforms

All of these factors — the ease with which police departments can acquire military gear, the frequency, bias and carelessness with which they use it, and the trail of destruction they leave behind — are reasons many community groups and civil rights groups support fully ending and not just reforming the 1033 program.

Congress has several proposals on the table that would significantly scale back or eliminate the 1033 program. A bill to reimpose some Obama-era limits on the program got a majority of votes in the Senate last year but failed to defeat a filibuster.

This year, congressional debates about the 1033 program were part of a contentious effort to pass a major police reform bill near the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March, would pare back the reasons the Pentagon could give out equipment — it could still distribute it for counterterrorism reasons but not for counterdrug operations — and all but prohibit the transfer of armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) has introduced those reforms as a standalone bill, while Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that would eliminate the 1033 program altogether.

Officers arrive at the scene of a protest in a Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department armored vehicle on Aug. 26, 2020.
Officers arrive at the scene of a protest in a Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department armored vehicle on Aug. 26, 2020.

Biden could make many of those changes through an executive order — and dozens of members of Congress have urged him to do so. The larger negotiations over police reform are reportedly ”teetering on collapse.” Qualified immunity, a sweeping doctrine that protects law enforcement officers from most civil lawsuits, is reportedly the main sticking point. But lawmakers have indicated that the 1033 program is another issue where lawmakers are still far apart. 

At the very least, civil rights groups are calling for changes to go further than the superficial reforms under the Obama administration. 

President Barack Obama limited the program by executive order in response to 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where military gear and armored vehicles were part of a brutal police crackdown on demonstrators. 

The order prohibited the Pentagon from giving out certain gear, like grenade launchers or tracked vehicles, and required local police who wanted armored vehicles to submit a detailed justification letter, a declaration that they had training requirements and protocols for deploying the vehicle, and a declaration that their local governing body had approved the request. Critics immediately identified several of the reforms as empty: The Defense Department hadn’t given out a grenade launcher since 1999. Still, President Donald Trump lifted the ban on restricted gear during his first year in office. 

Trump wasn’t able to undo Obama’s paperwork requirements, because in 2016, Congress passed them into law. But the documents underscore how many previous reforms of the program were just that: paperwork.

Most agencies certified that they had protocols for training and deployment simply by writing “Yes” in response to the questions about protocols for training and deployment. The Pentagon requires these protocols and training to be available to the public, a spokesperson said, but the agencies self-certify their own compliance; no one checks. Agencies frequently appear to cut and paste their justifications from a list of example answers provided by the Department of Defense. The sheriff of Boone County, Indiana — a landlocked county more than 300 miles from the Canadian border  — made a list of justifications that included “border patrol.” The county received an MRAP in 2019.

And although Obama prohibited giving out gear to agencies that had been found in violation of civil rights law, the documents show that the Defense Department only checked to see whether agencies had been under a federal investigation in the past three years. (During Obama’s eight years in office, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations of police departments resulting in just 15 consent decrees.) So many agencies met this low bar for approval that the Defense Department cleared their requests with a literal rubber stamp.

 

The stamp used by the Defense Department to clear law enforcement agencies to receive armored vehicles.
The stamp used by the Defense Department to clear law enforcement agencies to receive armored vehicles.

 

Ultimately, the factor that most determined how many agencies received armored vehicles was how many armored vehicles the Pentagon happened to bring home from war that year, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. In 2015 — when Obama imposed limits on the program halfway through the year — the Pentagon transferred 31 vehicles to local law enforcement; the next year, with those reforms in place, it gave out 213. In 2017, even though Trump lifted Obama’s restrictions, the number fell to 133. Transfers rose again in 2019 to 169 vehicles.

Clearly, Takei said, it made little difference whether or not Obama’s reforms were in effect. “There were some additional hoops that police departments and sheriffs had to jump through in order to get military gear, but they still ended up getting military gear in the end.”

A host of factors determine which requests get priority, such as how each state’s coordinator — who is appointed by the governor — ranks the requests; the size of the police force and the population it serves, and whether the agencies are located inside of a federally designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a Pentagon spokesperson said. (Because HIDTA regions get priority, many agencies pointed out that they are near an HIDTA, or share a highway with an HIDTA. Janesville, Minnesota, notes darkly that there is a nearby larger town, just 12 miles away, which sits on a highway “leading directly to the southern part of the United States.”) 

Why should all of these local police departments be getting free armored vehicles in order to carry out drug raids? Carl Takei, ACLU senior staff attorney

Although the 1033 program was one of the early drivers of police militarization, it is not the only one. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, grant programs run by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have given local police departments billions to spend on armored vehicles, weapons and crowd dispersal gear with few restrictions. And police and sheriff’s departments essentially have free rein to purchase military-style vehicles, weapons and tactical gear directly from military suppliers out of their own pockets.

For many police officers, surplus military gear is safety equipment — end of discussion.

“Just because it comes from the Department of Defense doesn’t mean it’s military-style equipment. We see it more as safety equipment,” said Yoes, the Fraternal Order of Police president. 

Yoes said he could not think of any instances in which police had misused military-style equipment or vehicles. Asked if he believed that there was any legitimacy to the idea that the routine use of this equipment endangers the public, he said, “I am very pleased that, as you say, a large number of people feel that it is an overreaction,” to use armored vehicles to serve search warrants and at protests “because that means that no officers were hurt.”

In recent weeks, the FOP has met with the members of Congress who are negotiating the police reform legislation. Yoes would not give his organization’s position on any of the live proposals before Congress. But it seems clear that the FOP only supports the kind of oversight and record-keeping that would have no actual impact on the flow of equipment. When asked about the Justice in Policing Act provision that would limit but not eliminate the 1033 program, Yoes claimed he wasn’t familiar with the details.

“Our position has always been very clear,” he said. “We oppose an end to the 1033 program.”

No Backing Down

The flood of military gear into local police arsenals mirrors a perilous shift in how police think about their role.

“They see themselves as warriors going out to participate in a conflict in society rather than public servants serving the communities where they work,” said Mike German, a former FBI special agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Not that it can’t be a dangerous job and you don’t want to be protected, but there’s a lack of objective analysis of both the threat they’re under and the violence that law enforcement officers mete out on a constant basis.”

To his point, several of these letters mentioned instances in which police officers have shot and killed someone as a reason why, in future crises, they ought to arrive in an armored vehicle. 

Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has tracked police militarization for years, has argued that it’s not the military gear that militarizes the police, but the other way around: Agencies go seeking military vehicles because police training and culture have instilled a belief that officers are warriors, not peacekeepers.

Multiple departments said they wanted to be capable of reinforcing U.S. border patrol missions or even capable of defending military hard targets. A small town in Colorado requested an MRAP in case the area’s military bases came under terrorist attack. Springfield, Ohio, said the nearby Ohio Air National Guard base, which operates an overseas drone strike mission, had limited ability to defend itself. (A spokesperson for the Ohio National Guard said it is common for local police departments and military facilities to make joint emergency plans, but that the base is perfectly capable of defending itself.)

Many departments argued that danger anywhere justified extreme equipment everywhere, however remote the chances or distant the threat. More than one agency pointed to the 2015 shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood as the rationale for needing an armored vehicle — in Florida and Ohio. An Ohio police chief wrote that the fact that the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter “demonstrated a desire” to obtain explosives — he had a bundle of fireworks — was proof that his department needed a mine-resistant vehicle.

I am sympathetic to the idea that American police are in a particularly difficult position. Americans are incredibly well-armed. Sarah Turberville, Project on Government Oversight

I made this same FOIA request in 2014, and it is readily apparent that police feel more afraid now than they did several years ago. Back then, as now, police justified their requests for armored vehicles by invoking extreme but rare events, such as hostage and active shooter situations. But in these more recent requests, police chiefs and sheriffs frequently characterized all routine events as having the potential to erupt in extreme violence. Danger lurked around every corner.

Police, of course, are called on to respond to genuinely extreme emergencies, such as mass shootings. And even in more contained emergencies, such as when a person threatens their spouse with a gun, officers still have to contend with the extraordinary firepower of ordinary Americans. The requests mention this fact constantly.

“We have had incidents where we have responded to shootings where officers have had to approach a residence with long driveways without any cover,” said one representative example. 

“I am sympathetic to the idea that American police are in a particularly difficult position,” Turberville said. “Americans are incredibly well-armed.” 

The country also relies squarely on the police when someone is having a mental health crisis and requires not a violent intercession but a health care intervention. 

“We don’t, as a society, have many other resources available for people in crisis,” she said. “Whenever there is any sort of mental health problem, or a problem related to drug abuse, the reflexive tendency of Americans is to call the police, because we typically don’t have any other real resources.”

But there are alternatives in most of these scenarios that don’t entail thousands of ordinary police forces arming and armoring themselves to the teeth, she added. Police can pick and choose when to serve search warrants to minimize the chances for violence. Lawmakers could pass the kinds of gun control that police organizations ask for and dedicate real money to resources for mental health and domestic violence prevention. 

German pointed out that if someone won’t come out of their house to receive a search warrant, police don’t have to break down the door.

“To reduce the level of violence, usually you just have to be smart,” he added. “You can shut off their power. You can shut off their water and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to get really unpleasant in there really fast.’ Eventually, they’ll come out. You’re law enforcement. You have nothing but time.”

There are recent examples of police taking these criticisms to heart and taking steps to demilitarize. In 2018, the police chief of Superior, Wisconsin, returned the agency’s mine-resistant vehicle, saying, “I heard from citizens that they didn’t view it as an appropriate piece of equipment for the Police Department — that they thought we were overdoing things when we had that type of vehicle out.” As calls to rethink and defund policing swept the country last year, Santa Fe, New Mexico, returned an MRAP and an army Humvee “in order to maintain the trust and confidence the community has for the Santa Fe Police Department.”

 

Members of Iraqi forces walk near an MRAP used by US forces supporting the operation to recapture Mosul from the Islamic Stat
Members of Iraqi forces walk near an MRAP used by US forces supporting the operation to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State group on October 18, 2016.

The police department in Sand Springs, Oklahoma — which requested an armored vehicle because “suspects can become violent” in 2018 — turned down the opportunity to receive an MRAP, Chief John Mars told HuffPost, and is wary of accepting a Humvee.  

“The downside to these vehicles is the public perception,” Mars wrote in an email. His department has put a lot of time and effort into building a better relationship with the community that he doesn’t want to squander, he said. “If we can buy another vehicle that has the same level of ballistic protection and it doesn’t look as scary to people we feel that is a better solution.”

In the requests obtained by HuffPost, a handful of departments showed the Pentagon that they were, in fact, thinking about how to limit the use of armored vehicles to moments of genuine and extreme need. The Wicomico County sheriff in Maryland said if his department received a vehicle, it was never to be used “for the purposes of intimidation.” The Cumberland County, North Carolina, sheriff submitted a five-page set of restrictions and guidelines on when it would use the MRAP it had requested: only in response to an armed suspect, only when an emergency was already underway, and only after attempting to respond without using the MRAP, unless the violence is too “substantial or protracted.”

“Under no circumstances will this vehicle be utilized as part of a response to public assemblies, protests, demonstrations, exercises of the First Amendment right to free speech, or for the control of civil disorder,” unless there is substantial violence, the guidelines said.

Corsicana, Texas, which asked for an armored vehicle to police its poorer citizens, has only deployed its SWAT team twice in the past year, records show.

Of course, having standards does not guarantee that a police force will use the vehicle sparsely. A year after Cumberland County made that request and received an MRAP, it asked for an armored Humvee to serve drug search warrants “approximately five time[s] per month.”

“I see virtually no backing down,” Kraska said. “I don’t see many police departments saying, we have to start reconceptualizing how we’re doing policing.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Sarah Turberville’s name.