Militarization of Police

Michigan County Sheriff's Department Dumps Armored Military Truck


From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

In April, the sheriff's department of Saginaw County, Michigan, landed itself one of those Mine Resistant Ambush Proof (MRAP) armored military vehicles being handed out to law enforcement agencies across the country willy nilly. At the time, the sheriff said there hadn't ever been a situation during his term that required the use of such a vehicle, but worried about any potential worst-case scenarios. He told Michigan MLive reporter Brad Devereaux they were "constantly outgunned" by criminals who could be carrying silencers (which MRAP's don't actually assist with) or assault weapons. But he hoped he wouldn't need to use it and expected to rarely even be driving it around.

Fast forward to the past two weeks and the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. On his Sunday HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the titular host singled out Saginaw County in his 15-minute segment about the militarization of the police department. The comedian didn't actually need to generate laughs himself. He found a video of two dude-bros who rolled up beside the massive military truck "dude"-ing at each other over how huge and impressive the thing is. Finally, one observes, "Damn, dude, that's fucked up," as they watched it drive on ahead.

Indeed. And now the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department has announced they're dumping the truck. The sheriff claims he had already made plans to get rid of the MRAP before the police confrontation in Ferguson prompted public questioning over police militarization. Again from Deveraux at MLive (where they've also got the Oliver segment embedded):

"I made the decision about a month ago to decommission that vehicle," [Sheriff Bill] Federspiel said, noting he did it based on financial concerns due to unforeseen maintenance costs.

While the military was to provide any needed parts, Federspiel said he still had to pay for a specialized mechanic to install the parts, along with insurance and fuel for the vehicle. 

When Saginaw County Commissioners asked him to look for cost-saving measures before setting the budget in July, the MRAP was the first thing to go, he said. 

The decision also came because Federspiel decided to direct funds from drug forfeitures into the county's general fund, he said. He previously planned to use drug forfeiture funds to pay for any costs associated with the MRAP and did so during the installation of a new starter and a new locking mechanism for the door since the vehicle has been in Saginaw County. 

When drug forfeiture funding was put into the county's general fund, Federspiel said it created a situation in which taxpayers might have to fund some of the costs of the MRAP, which also prompted him to send it back to the Army. 

Two things of interest to note. First of all, it should not come as a surprise that they failed to predict or plan for certain costs when getting something "free" from the federal government. I have seen this time and time again where municipalities chase federal grants for projects and purchases, tell the community they're getting it for "free," and then—surprise!—these gifts result in big drains on the budget in later years because they aren't getting federal money to maintain them. Sometimes the community doesn't even realize it unless it becomes a big enough problem to become a focus of discussion in the city (like when the economy turns sour).

Second, like we needed another reason for asset forfeiture reform. Note the phrasing that the sheriff "decided" to direct funds from drug forfeitures to the county's general fund. The Institute for Justice (IJ), which has launched a big effort of fight civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement agencies, gives Michigan a D- for its forfeiture laws. According to IJ, law enforcement agencies across the state are typically allowed to keep the money for themselves and have raked in more than $149 million in forfeiture revenue from 2001 to 2008. A report covering 2012 calculated prosecutors and law enforcement agencies bringing in more than $25.7 million in cash and property from their seizures that year.

It is fascinating that Federspiel himself decided to give the money to the county's general fund (if that's truly how it shook out). It is a huge disincentive for his agency to try and seize whatever it can get its hands on and is also going to make it a challenge for his sheriff's department to participate in any further militarization. Unfortunately, if this is a voluntary decision on his part, it could also be undone due to pressure or by a future sheriff.

This isn't the first unusual choice of Federspiel's that Reason has taken note of. In July, Ed Krayewski noticed that he was switching prison uniforms from orange back to the old-timey black-and-white-striped overalls because he worried that orange jumpsuits were possibly becoming trendy and people wouldn't be able to determine whether somebody was actually a prison inmate.