Coming soon to your local sheriff: Armor-protected, 18-ton military fighting vehicles with gun turrets and bulletproof glass. These trucks were the U.S. answer to roadside bombs during the Iraq war.
The hulking vehicles, built for about $500,000 each at the height of the war, are among the biggest pieces of equipment that the Department of Defense is giving to law enforcement agencies under a national military surplus program.
For police and sheriff's departments, which have scooped up 165 of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAP) since they became available this summer, the price and the ability to deliver shock and awe while serving warrants or dealing with hostage standoffs was just too good to pass up.
“It’s armored. It’s heavy. It’s intimidating. And it’s free,” said Sheriff Craig Apple of Albany County, one of five county sheriff’s departments and three other police agencies in New York that will own a MRAP.
But the trucks have limits. They are too big to travel on some bridges and roads and have a tendency to tip over on uneven ground. And then there’s the cost of retrofitting them for civilian use and fueling the 36,000-pound behemoths that get about 5 miles to the gallon.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is criticizing what it sees as the increasing militarization of the police. ACLU affiliates, planning to issue a report early next year, have been collecting records from 2012 to determine the extent of military hardware and tactics acquired by police.
“One of our concerns with this is it has a tendency to escalate violence,” said Kara Dansky, ACLU Center for Justice senior counsel.
But Apple rejects the idea that the nation’s police forces are becoming too militaristic: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Our problem is we have to make sure we are prepared to respond to every type of crisis.”
For example, he said, if SWAT teams need to get close to a shooter or get bystanders safely away from one, the MRAP would be the vehicle of choice.
The law enforcement versions of the MRAP, which seat six and reach 65 mph, will have the machine gun removed, and the turret will be closed up except for a small slot, the only place to fire a gun. Its bulletproof windows don’t open.
“The whole idea is to protect the occupants,” said Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree of Warren County by the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York. “It’s very common for people [here] to have high-powered hunting rifles.”
“We rolled the Humvee in the front yard, gave a couple of commands and he said, ‘OK, I'm coming out,’” investigator Jeff Gildersleeve said. “That’s the way we like them to end.”