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Local police departments acquire more military surplus firepower

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Some of the equipment looks as if you might find it on a battlefield in Afghanistan — not the streets of Mishawaka, North Liberty or Bourbon — but the inventory lists show how much military gear local police departments have stockpiled.

MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles are just some of the tools that have found their way to Michiana police, courtesy of the federal government.

Just this year, the Mishawaka and Michigan City police departments each obtained the latest, and perhaps most controversial, item to become available: The MRAP, or "mine resistant ambush protected" troop carrier, a hulking, six-wheeled $733,000 armored vehicle.

The latest acquisitions come as critics raise concerns that the U.S. government's 1033 program — which lets the military donate unneeded weapons and equipment to law enforcement across the country — encourages police to increasingly look and act like small armies.

In a report published last month, the American Civil Liberties Union pointed to the MRAP and other war equipment acquired by local police, along with an increase in cases of SWAT team deployments throughout the country, as evidence of a growing militarism among police.

"American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion and oversight," the ACLU report stated.

Police chiefs, meanwhile, say the program has helped them to work around budget constraints, modernize their departments and provide their officers with the tools they need to confront the dangers of their job.

"There's been a little bit of hype with departments getting M16s, MRAPs, that type of stuff," said Walkerton Police Chief Matthew Schalliol. "It's not for the purpose of becoming more militarized. It's for the purpose of being prepared for any type of scenario that could come our way."

In Walkerton, a town with a population of slightly more than 2,000, the police department got two Humvees worth nearly $40,000 each, five night-vision sights worth more than $4,000 each and scores of ammunition magazines and combat-oriented accessories in the past two years alone, according to data provided by the state, which coordinates the program.

Others, such as the Elkhart and Goshen police departments, obtained dozens of military rifles. In North Liberty, a town of 1,896, the stockpile includes Humvees, combat knives, rifles, dozens of ammunition magazines — even a pair of landmine detectors.

Roseland, the town of 630 that encompasses roughly a square mile between Notre Dame and Cleveland Road, also got a Humvee, and so did Bourbon, a town of 1,810 in eastern Marshall County.

Yet while the combat gear has drawn the most scrutiny, small-town police chiefs have largely used the program to outfit their departments with general office and investigative items such as computers, printers and digital cameras, often acquiring thousands of dollars worth of equipment for free, except for shipping and handling.

The program allowed North Liberty town Marshal Mike Sawdon, who oversees just two full-time officers, to outfit his squad cars with laptops and build a gym — complete with elliptical machines, treadmills and weights — in the basement of the police station.

Schalliol, the Walkerton police chief, estimated that at least 70 percent of the office equipment at the town's police station, including every computer and monitor, was acquired through the 1033 program.

"If we didn't have this program, there's a good chance we'd still be in the dark ages, so to speak," he said.

And some of the military gear can be repurposed, Sawdon said, pointing out that his department could use the landmine detectors to find weapons, shell casings or other metallic evidence at crime scenes. Police said the Humvees can be used to track fleeing suspects into remote areas or even as ambulances during harsh weather conditions that pose challenges to other vehicles.

The heaviest weapons and vehicles, meanwhile, see use only on rare occasions, Mishawaka Police Chief Ken Witkowski said. In the two months since the Mishawaka Police Department unveiled the MRAP — which will be used by the St. Joseph County Metro SWAT Team — the vehicle has not been deployed for anything other than training exercises.

The ACLU report, which was based on 800 SWAT incident reports in 2011 and 2012, raised concerns that military-style weapons and tactics are increasingly used for routine police work. More than 60 percent of those SWAT deployments were for drug searches, the report found.

To some police officials, perceptions of militarization are nothing new.

"Law enforcement have always been considered a 'paramilitary' profession," said Goshen Police Chief Wade Branson, whose department acquired several dozen M16 rifles in 2012. "We wear uniforms, follow chain of command, operate according to ... policies and procedures."

In one example, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department this year started a new full-time, 12-member SWAT team to "seek out and neutralize" people connected with violent crime in the city's most dangerous areas, the Indianapolis Star reported Friday.

While Mishawaka and county police may use the MRAP for occasional covert drug raids, its use for the most part would remain limited to the general parameters for SWAT deployments, which include lengthy standoffs with suspects who have barricaded themselves inside houses, Witkowski said.

"To be honest with you, if it rolls two times a year, maybe that's a lot," Witkowski said. "We're not doing anything different with our SWAT team because of a truck."

The federal government started giving away MRAP vehicles last year as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew to a close. The ACLU report estimated about 500 police departments around the country have acquired the vehicles.

Ray Wolff, chairman of the LaPorte County Libertarian Party, was among those who spoke against the MRAP that Michigan City police acquired. The party started a petition drive and asked the Michigan City Common Council to pass an ordinance to send the vehicle back to the military.

"It's not a tank, but a lot of people see it as the next step down, and people just can't understand why there's a need for it," Wolff said. "I think people would find it intimidating on so many levels."

Critics have also raised concerns about the seeming lack of local oversight. Michigan City Common Council minutes show some members didn't know the police department was seeking the MRAP until after the vehicle arrived.

Witkowski said Mishawaka city officials did not hold public discussions before his department acquired its MRAP, and the police chiefs in Walkerton and North Liberty said in interviews that they had sole oversight of which items their departments requested through the 1033 program.

Departments enroll in the program and request items through the Law Enforcement Support Office, a branch of the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.

In May, Michigan City Police Chief Mark Swistek apologized to council members for not discussing the MRAP with them, assuring the panel the vehicle would be used for nothing more than to help protect officers and citizens from harm in the case of dangerous events such as school shootings or hostage situations.

The MRAP, which Michigan City police renamed an "armored rescue vehicle," could withstand fire from high-powered rifles that would rip through standard ballistic vests and squad cars, Swistek said.

Those types of the situations — though uncommon — require police to have their own heavy weapons at the ready just to match suspects' firepower, Schalliol said, pointing to the July 5 killing of Indianapolis police officer Perry Renn, who was killed in a shootout with a suspect who was reportedly wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.

"It's hard to battle an AK-47 with a pistol," Schalliol said.

Until the past decade or so, Witkowski said, that risk seemed far away, reserved for the big-city police departments in Chicago and Los Angeles.

"When I first came on 20 years ago, when we had a shots-fired call, it was unheard of," he said. "There's no doubt it's taken a turn for the worse for police officers."

CSheckler@SBTinfo.com
 

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