As U.S. military operations wind down overseas, some of that surplus hardware has been used to equip cash-strapped local police departments.
Police and sheriff’s departments have been given at least 165 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles since this summer, according to a recentWashington Post analysis.
The vehicles cost about $500,000 at the height of the Iraq war, but they’ve been donated or sold for about $2,000 or $3,000 to local law enforcement agencies as part of a national military surplus program.
“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,” said Officer Keith Holmes, of the Fort Pierce, Florida, police department.
The relatively small coastal city ranked 56th last year in gun violence, with 150 shootings and about 42,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“They brought this back from Afghanistan and now it’s in Fort Pierce for officer rescues, search warrants, things like that that an officer would need protection,” Holmes said.
Other cities are using the hulking armored vehicles for similar purposes – largely to deliver shock and awe during routine business or during standoffs.
“It’s armored. It’s heavy. It’s intimidating. And it’s free,” said Sheriff Craig Apple, of Albany County, New York.
The vehicles are somewhat impractical for domestic police use, however, because they’re too big to travel on some bridges and roads and get just 5 miles per gallon.
Civil liberties watchdogs have also expressed concern about the increasing militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies.
“One of our concerns with this is it has a tendency to escalate violence,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU Center for Justice.
The “wars” on drugs and terrorism have blurred the lines between police officers and soldiers, said an ACLU official in Ohio.
“Traditionally, the roles of police and the roles of military have been very different — and for good reason,” said Shakyra Diaz, policy director of the state’s ACLU chapter. “We cannot have our police looking at members of the community as military combatants.”
An Associated Press investigation found that most of the $4.2 billion in military surplus equipment distributed to law enforcement agencies since 1990 had gone to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
“I agree to a certain extent it’s overkill, but for the cost, for $2,000, yes, it’s what we need,” said Holmes, of Fort Pierce police.