Militarization of Police

Cops Still Love Their Armored Vehicles

Remember concerns about militarized policing? It’s still a big threat to civil liberties and to relations between Americans and law enforcement.


The pay-only-for-shipping purchase of an armored vehicle by the police department in the nearest incorporated town to my home was "the best $4,000 Cottonwood PD ever spent," according to a recent article in the local newspaper. That's a debatable assertion, though it probably doesn't matter to you unless you're a Cottonwood taxpayer. But it's a reminder that while Americans may have lost interest in the reports about police militarization that grabbed headlines a few years ago, cops are still armoring up like shock troops.

Reason was on to the steady transformation of America's police forces from civilian peacekeepers to armies of occupation even before events in Ferguson, Missouri, brought the flow of equipment, weapons, and training from the armed forces to American cops to the country's attention. "In my research into the rise and overuse of SWAT teams, I found that the single biggest motivating factor behind the surge has been a Pentagon program in place since about 1990 that offers up surplus military equipment to local police departments free of charge," wrote former Reason staffer Radley Balko  (now at The Washington Post) in 2007.

Balko went on to author Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, published in 2014.

That was the same year U.S. News & World Report discovered the program and noted that "police forces are increasingly turning away from developing trust … and opting instead for arsenals of assault rifles, concussion grenades and the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, that have become ubiquitous to the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan."

And whaddya know, it's an MRAP that Cottonwood, Arizona police just added to the armory for the local multi-department rural SWAT team! "Verde Valley SWAT uses its MRAP on high-risk search warrants, SWAT events, barricade situations," reported the Verde Independent. "[Cottonwood Police Chief Steve] Gesell says its role within SWAT is fundamental."

Gesell is certainly a firm believer in the value of armored vehicles. He lost his previous gig as top cop in San Luis Obispo in part because he held out for up-armoring the department's motor pool. At least he's consistent in his beliefs, retaining his faith in rolling fortresses for addressing the sorts of law-enforcement challenges encountered in both coastal California towns and high-desert Arizona communities.

But the police chief's support for hard-core policing is hardly an isolated phenomenon in law enforcement.

Gesell counted among the many police officials who have traveled to Israel for "training in Israeli police tactics that includes having police wear body armor and carry automatic weapons as they patrol the streets," according to CalCoastNews in 2014. Other alumni of the training program include the former police chief of Ferguson, Missouri. The program is offered by the Anti-Defamation League as part of a larger package of police-oriented courses that the organization boasts has trained thousands of law enforcement personnel in federal, state, and local agencies.

Participation in such programs is controversial in many communities around the U.S. because of the anti-terrorist focus, with an emphasis on heavy-handed military tactics for patrolling hostile territory. Voicing concerns about that approach, the city council of Durham, North Carolina voted against police participation in any such training, sparking lawsuits in response.

In terms of the gear necessary to implement such training, the federal Defense Logistics Agency's 1033 program continues to provide a pipeline of military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The tap is as wide open as ever, courtesy of the Trump White House's cancelation of earlier, short-lived Obama administration restrictions on such transfers. The brief wave of high-level concern over brutal policing and its corrosive effect on relations between cops and the people they supposedly protect also went the way of those restrictions.

"When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, 'Please don't be too nice,'" the president told an audience of law enforcement officers in July 2017.

Not that the police need much encouragement when it comes to pushing the limits of reasonable behavior. In 2016, a team from a joint law-enforcement task force showed up in full battle rattle at my wife's pediatric clinic to enforce an outstanding non-violent misdemeanor warrant for failure to appear in court against a staffer. In a display of some sort of restraint, they left the MRAP elsewhere.

If you're wondering, there's little if any obvious benefit to the army of occupation approach. Militarized policing erodes the public's opinion of law enforcement and especially targets racial minorities without reducing crime or improving officer safety, according to research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. "In the case of militarized policing, the results suggest that the often-cited trade-off between public safety and civil liberties is a false choice," writes author Jonathan Mummolo, Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

Even people who don't care much about civil liberties and hostile relations between people and police should give some thought to the dollars-and-cents costs of militarized law enforcement. Whether or not the four grand spent on a junior tank was the "best" expenditure is a judgment call, but it's hardly the end of the bills for keeping the thing gassed and running.

"These specialty-type vehicles do have some maintenance costs associated with them," Verde Valley SWAT Team Commander Gareth Braxton-Johnson told my local newspaper. What that means is hard to pin down, since the department didn't respond to my query about specific numbers.

But the military has extensive experience running these vehicles, even if none of the branches of the armed forces seems to have established a consistent model for estimating ongoing expenses. Annual repair parts alone run at least $15,930 per MRAP, according to a 2010 Naval Postgraduate School thesis. Fuel, labor, spares, overhauls, and the like add tens of thousands of dollars to that tab.

Even if police agencies can improve on the military's reputation for less-than-stellar cost control, an armored vehicle acquired for anything other than display purposes is a high price to pay for civil liberties violations and strained relations between cops and their nominal employers.

NEXT: Brickbat: For the Birds

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. There’s a war on cops, dontcha know. If I were the cops, I’d be building reinforced concrete bunkers to hunker down inside of. Cops would be much safer if they stayed inside. There’s a good chance the public would be safer, too.

    1. There is not a war on cops, unless you mean a propaganda war. Democrat local governments do tend to talk a to about ‘disparate impact’ while at the same time instructing the price to enforce a regime of petty fines levied A) because Democrats are buttinskies and B) because they c an’t pay for their intrusive government hobbies by raising taxes if they want to get reelected. This makes the cops ‘the enemy’ and binds the minority voters that they oppress to the Democrats, because the Democrats TAK a good equity game, while actually working to keep the poor down.

      But a War On Cops? Being a cop is not an especially dangerous job, according to statistical studies of job related injury and death.

      1. Whoosh!

        1. CSP makes an interesting point, but dude who doesn’t have the mental capacity to come up with a name for itself just wants to virtue signal. Thanks for that

          1. CSP is being sarcastic. You missed it. What’s that got to do with Nardz being a name?

            1. Correction: Jerryskids was being sarcastic. CSP (and apparently Nardz) missed it.

              That said, we really do need a font.

              1. We also need a preview function. That should have said
                “we really do need a sarcasm font.

              2. I did miss it. Comes of reading about politics before I’ve digested my breakfast.

                What I wrote still stands, though. There are too many people who think there IS a War On Cops.

          2. Shut up, Nardz, and let the adults have their discussion. Thanks.

    2. I guess they’d be happier if cops went around town with the tops down on their VW bug convertibles… replacing their handguns with 22 cal pistols

      1. That would be an improvement, yes.
        But thanks for chiming in, Pigfucker.

  2. The program is offered by the Anti-Defamation League as part of a larger package of police-oriented courses that the organization boasts has trained thousands of law enforcement personnel in federal, state, and local agencies.

    Who is America?

  3. cops are still armoring up like shock troops.

    Serious question: How long does it take a portly, unpracticed typical officer to don xir militarized SWAT costume?

    1. They just wear them all day. That’s why they service petty warrants at reputable places of business wearing that shit.

  4. Say goodbye to body pain and aches. Use the plastic bottle as the best foam roller. Massaging your body may help relieve the pain. Pain which is caused due to excessive physical activity is reduced when massaging is done. Either you can do it by yourself or could ask someone to do the massage.

  5. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. And while you have it you might as well engineer a need for it. Preemptive war on the unbadged!

    1. I don’t often agree with you, but I think you’re at least partially on target here. The Police subculture has sold itself on the ‘War On Cops’ myth, so they get the toys. Then they start using them for ‘risky warrants’. Then they start using them on ALL warrants. Then they start saying to themselves ‘Hey, those old geezers down to the VFW hall have a Saturday night poker game. That’s illegal! Lets raid them for shits and giggles.’.

      I wish I knew the name of the streaming company that makes old reruns of ‘The Untouchables’ available to police station TVs on the cheap; they need to be stopped.

      Maybe we could get them to do the same to Jack Webb’s ‘Dragnet’; Sgt. Friday may have been a deadpan stick, but he served warrants calmly, knocked on doors rather then kicking them in, and didn’t drive a tank.

      1. I miss the good ol’ days of the Reason commentariat when even the Republican-leaning guys regularly made salient points and added to the discussion.

        Now it’s just a bunch of mindless children screeching “TDS!!!” and “pedo!!!”, and most of the old guard have fled the retardness.

        At least we have the occasional article like this one which appears to not interest them, presumably because they can’t plausibly just accuse the writer and every other commenter of “TDS”.

        1. There are a handful of trolls here.

          Ignore them and they will go away. It is just juveniles seeking attention.

          I do not know if Reason comments can get back to what it was.

      2. “so they get the toys. Then they start using them for ‘risky warrants’. Then they start using them on all warrants.”

        The other problem with this is that it increases their willingness to conduct risky warrants. In the past, they might have been more likely to find opportunities to do low risk arrests when people are travelling to and from their home. Now, with all that shiny armor at their disposal, the police are more inclined to choose to launch a full assault at 2 am.

  6. This is an issue the founders worried about (although they called the heavily armed groups used to enforce the law “standing armies” rather than “militarized police”.) That’s why they included the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

    If the gear used by cops is also freely available to Joe and Jane Doe, then cops having Glock pistols or Thomson submachine guns, or armored vehicles isn’t a problem. The problem comes with “we cops are special; we get this gear that’s forbidden to you peasants” – even if the “gear” is something as prosaic as handcuffs.

    That’s the point of the 2nd’s “Well regulated militia” clause. A free State needs law-enforcement to qualify as a militia, armed only with gear freely available to Joe and Jane. But to be effective at the job, they also have to be well-equipped and familiar with their equipment (which is what “well-regulated” meant at the time). And the way to satisfy both these conditions at once is to declare that Joe and Jane’s right to any gear that cops might possibly need “shall not be infringed.”

    1. You are exactly right to wonder whether our civil police agencies, at all levels, local, state and federal, have become the domestic standing armies the Founders worried about. Notice how advocates of “assault weapon” bans call them “weapons of war” and “mass murder machines”, but seem perfectly comfortable with their use by civil police agencies. Who are the police at war with? And is “mass murder” part of their job?

    2. I am sure the abundance of AR-15 /AK 47 type semi -auto long rifles in the hands of consumers makes cops a little nervous. I don’t have a problem with them having armored vehicles.

      1. Take the salty pig nuts out of your mouth, AER1972

  7. Incredible – the pentagon orders MRAPs from Oshkosh trucking because all of their shit is getting smoked by road side bombs in Afghanistan, they buy them at a price of like $800,000 a truck, they use them for one year, and then turn around and sell them to the fucking Cottonwood police department for $4,000. First rule in government spending – burn the money.

    1. Yup. The US Military should be “mothballing” these vehicles for a rainy day not giving them away.

      99.9% Police departments dont even need these vehicles ever. The few that might, like an LAPD SWAT or NYPD Bomb Squad, can pay for them themselves.

      1. A good special purpose bomb squad vehicle is probably different from a MRAP and less likely to be used in public for its intimidation value.

    2. If they were smart it wouldn’t be a sale, it would be a loan, with the military able to recall it to service if needed. IIRC they did something like that with the Iowa-class battleships when they were turned into museum ships in the 90s

    3. While the military is entirely capable of doing boneheaded things on its own, my experience has been that when you find them doing something with money that looks insane, look to Congress. A hugely overpriced whatsit is likely to be an accounting phantom, brought about by Congressionally mandated accounting practices. Or the product of the bid process, again mandated by Congress.

      I don’t KNOW Congress has its paws in this mess…but that’s the way I would bet.,

  8. Ah, the ties that bind.

  9. Understand that these things are toys. This is a waste of money more than anything. The cops have neither the money nor the know how to maintain these things. They end up as lawn art in most cases.

    I wouldn’t describe this as a threat to civil liberties. There is nothing the cops can do with these things that they couldn’t also do without them.

    1. Hopefully it is just a waste of money, and someday in the near future we can drop the ‘rolling fortress’ charade and just buy police departments Bentleys.

      Unfortunately, possessing an MRAP is enough encouragement for police departments to find ways to use to them to do whatever they feel like without threat of retribution because FYTW.

      Just to be clear though, John is sure bolstering his libertarian position by advocating for militarized police here!

      1. Which part of “waste of money” do you not understand? There is literally nothing in my post that advocates for militarizing the police.

        Are retarded? Illiterate? What is your excuse for being unable to understand the English language?

        1. Lol: “Are retarded?”

          If it’s just a waste of money, why doesn’t the pentagon leave them in the back of the parking lot, use them for target practice, keep deploying them, abandon them overseas, park them downtown with the keys in them, etc.? Seems like a deliberate choice to give military equipment to organizations that are planning to put them to use. A $4000 price tag helps ensure that the police treat them as disposable materiel.

          1. “Put them to use”…how?
            They are the military equivalent of a BRINKS truck.
            There are no offensive weapons attached, they are just armored to protect the ones inside.
            The objections are the same as the ones against “assault weapons” – “they look scary”.

            1. Use: Smushing, ramming, storming — you know, generic militarized police behavior.

              Good point re: the lack of offensive weapons. What bearcat would be complete without your department’s very own aftermarket turret?

              Great point re: assault weapons. If these vehicles are military surplus, they should be auctioned off and I should have the same opportunity to buy a $4000 armored vehicle that the PD has.

    2. I think they get these at surplus prices.

  10. Sure, but this is why you seize the police stations first in case of civil war

    1. Did you learn that from Revolution for Dummies? WE were trained to seize the radio stations first and broadcast that we had seized the police station, train depot, and airport. Then in the confusion we were supposed to seize the police station and national guard armory. But the radio station first: Videodrome lesson 1 – who controls the public’s perceptions controls the public’s reality. However, successful revolutionaries keep their reality real.

      (Put imaginary [sarcasm] [/sarcasm] tags around the above.)

  11. When the police look like an occupying force and act like an occupying force, then…

  12. San Louse Obispo is one of those quit peacefull college towns on the California Coast. So yea they need an MRAP. Cops got to one up their buddies in big cites to prove to themselves their value, no body wants to claim they are from Mayberry and don’t need a gun its to un manly for cops

    1. What does riding in a vehicle that is Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected have to do with needing a gun?
      They may be overkill, but they don’t represent any kind of offensive use.

  13. Where are the copsuckers telling us how cops need APCs because of all the shoplifters and jaywalkers they come in contact with could be armed with RPGs and anti-tank missiles?

  14. As with personal body armor, these vehicles are coffins for the occupants in the face of a reasonably trained opposition.
    What the black- body armor and bdu clad police, in these military vehicles, with these military weapons are, is intimidation. Government terror.
    MRAPs are junk, not bullet proof, not fire proof, and can get stuck off pavement very quickly. Top heavy, etc, etc. Death traps.
    Body armor, while having a place, is likewise an illusion. You don’t have to go through the armor to get to the person.
    Instead of cringing in terror (as we are expected to do) we should point out the weaknesses, the easy defeats, the failings of these gadgets and deadly toys, and focus on the individual people who promote this militarization.
    Call them out, by name. Get past the “protecting the police who protect the law abiding public” garbage, and identify them as “warriors”, the killers that they are.
    And cowards who can’t operate on par with those they claim to protect.
    It still isn’t the gun. It is the person behind the trigger.

  15. The Yavapai County Attorney, Sheila Polk, is a drug warrioring piece of shit. I can easily she her helping to make sure Cottonwood was able to acquire this.

  16. How about robocops? Not cyborgs like in the movie, but actual robots remotely controlled by cops at headquarters operating the controls.

    They may be more willing to risk the loss of a robot, given the unlimited funds they seem to have for new gadgets. And if they’re not so stressed about losing a robot, they might be less trigger-happy.

    I see absolutely nothing which could go wrong with my plan.

  17. Looks like Cottonwood criminals will need to start using RPG’s to even thing out.

  18. Police are outnumbered and out gunned. That is a given.

    In a civil society there is respect for law enforcement unless it goes beyond certain boundaries. Look at Hong Kong.

    These vehicles, we don’t have them here in flyover country. There have been issues with police in the city. Those have been addressed and no problems recently.

    1. “Police are outnumbered and out gunned. That is a given.”

      One reason sheriffs had the posse comitatus (power of the county) to deputize armed citizens in emergencies. Which is why deputized citizens were called posses. Current car motto is “Citizens Serving Citizens”. Yeah, that would be a fly-over country thing, and not a blue state coastie elite thing. 1980s LAPD chief Robert McNamara declared war on LA armed citizens. NYPD have been at war with armed citizens since Tim Sullivan of Tammany Hall 1911. Big city motto oughta be “Us Versus Them”. Federal law enforcement attitudes appear more in sync with NYPD, CPD, and LAPD than with Mayberry RFD.

      Robert Peale’s “bobbies” in London did not carry guns, but if they needed a gun, they could knock on a citizen’s door and request the loan of their gun for the duration of the emergency. Think on that bit of history awhile.

      Today’s terror elite want to declare a War on Guns which actually means a police war on armed citizens. Armed citizens outnumber gun criminals by a factor at least 160 to 1* and if the police fail at the war on crime, how successful will be the war on guns?

      *(65,000,000 gun owners to 400,000 gun criminals assuming worst-case-scenario that reported gun crimes represent one criminal using a gun).

  19. headline: Cops Still Love Their Armored Vehicles

    Under the Obama admin, a local county received an armored personal carrier.
    It was only used for a few rescue operations in remote areas to take in EMTs and evacuate injured hikers/hunters from terrain where jeeps or ATVs could not go, the forest canopy did not allow helicopter rescue, and portaging the injured out by foot with a stretcher was the only alternative (and not as good as using an APC as an all terrain ambulance).
    Due to negative publicity over “militarization of the police” it was taken back.

  20. Riverside Cal; a Highway Patrolman (State Police) was shot and killed by a desperate, depressed, man while having his truck confiscated. He along with two other offices of the law were taken, along with the dead shooter, to the same Hospital.
    The local Police Chief was so paranoid over the shooting that he placed armored vehicles at both entrances of the Hospital and heavily armed snipers with tripod gun rests on the roof. At taxpayer expense an endless parade of law enforcement personnel escorted the Hurst to the coroners office.
    This to me is a perfect example of the complete separation of law enforcement and the people they’re paid to protect. The level of paranoia within the departments needs as much immediate attention as does those they now want to “Red Flag” and confiscate guns from!!!! As much as they all whine about how dangerous their job is those that built the home they live in are at higher risk of not making it home!They’re listed 26th to 28th on lists of most dangerous jobs.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.