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.