Ohio law-enforcers gaining a military feel
There has never been a land mine in Adams County.
But the sheriff’s office now has a mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicle — the kind the military used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The southwestern Ohio sheriff got it and other vehicles through a federal program that puts military surplus out to pasture with law-enforcement agencies all over the country.
“I’m not worried about land mines in Adams County. If you think about it, I don’t have enough deputies to fill the truck up, anyway. I’m not going to war,” Sheriff Kim Rogers said.
“We didn’t get that in an attempt to go out and get in shootouts. We got that vehicle so that we could get places in the winter when we need to go somewhere. Everybody’s making a great big issue out of these things. (Like) we think we’re military, and all that. That’s not what I’ve got these vehicles for.”
The big issue Rogers references — made kitchen-table talk because of what’s happening in Ferguson, Mo. — is whether local law-enforcers need military-grade stuff. A Ferguson police officer shot and killed an unarmed man a little more than a week ago. Folks in Ferguson have protested both peacefully and violently about that shooting. Police met those protesters with military-grade equipment, and people took notice.
Ohio has that equipment, too.
Since 1995, about 550 Ohio police departments, sheriff’s offices, university and private police forces have procured nearly 65,000 surplus items through the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program as the military downsized. One of the most-popular items is the M16A1 5.56-millimeter automatic rifle, which entered wide military use during the Vietnam War. About 440 agencies have them, although no one has more than the State Highway Patrol. It has about 1,000.
Over the past year or two, the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) has become available. There now are 36 Ohio agencies that have an MRAP through the program.
Military surplus MRAPs are in 29 of the state’s 88 counties, including Delaware, Fairfield, Licking and Pickaway. Ohio State University police have one, too.
In 2008, the Delaware Police Department got a grenade launcher.
“It would be utilized to shoot tear gas or rubber pellets for crowd control,” Capt. Adam Moore said. “I don’t believe other than training it’s been used since we’ve had it.”
The department would have bought tear-gas guns through a police-supply outlet, anyway, Moore said.
The department has an MRAP, too, which it got in March and painted blue. It posted a photo of the new vehicle to the city’s Facebook page, which started a passionate discussion among those who commented on the photo.
There were, in general, two sides: One that said they were glad to have safer vehicles for police and the community and the other that called a 10-foot-tall vehicle meant to withstand roadside bombs overkill.
Law-enforcement agencies are aware of the controversy.
“Our chief has pledged it’s not a public-relations tool. We’re not going to have it in a parade,” Moore said. “The chief is apt to say that a piece of equipment is not a philosophy. It’s how we use that piece of equipment. ... Our goal is, quite frankly, that this is a piece of equipment that nobody ever has to see, that never has to be used.”
Many of the military-surplus weapons and vehicles are on the streets in other departments.
Columbus police have 350 M16s from the surplus program, which are issued to some patrol officers. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has about 230 M16s, which spokesman Mark Bruce said are “standard equipment” for its law-enforcement officers.
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No agency The Dispatch spoke with said it planned to use MRAPs for crowd control.
Most offered scenarios in which vehicles such as MRAPs and armored Humvees kept citizens and officers safe.
Down in Adams County, Rogers said the harsh winter caused problems for emergency crews trying to reach a burning house where a woman fretted about getting her bedridden husband out in time.
“We dragged the bed out and all. No other vehicle could’ve got us there,” Rogers said.
This summer, he promised children MRAP rides if they completed the sheriff’s anti-drug, anti-bullying program. Fabulous attendance this year, he said.
The Fairfield County sheriff’s office got an MRAP in March. It’s been used once.
“Within the first week or so, we had an incident where a man had fired a firearm, I believe it was a rifle, and his wife had gotten out. But he refused to come out,” Sheriff Dave Phalen said. “We pulled in his driveway, and within minutes he came out. It offered that level of concern to him that he elected to go ahead and surrender.”
It’s so heavily armored that it can roll through gunfire, said Sgt. Jared Collins, who oversees the Fairfield sheriff’s SWAT team. For example, if there were a shooter at a school, the sheriff’s office could back the MRAP up to the door and load 20 kids inside.
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Those are not the situations that worry the American Civil Liberties Union, which criticizes what it sees as “excessively militarized” police forces across the country.
“We can all think of scenarios where having this equipment and deploying it doesn’t present civil-liberties concerns. Natural disasters — floods or tornadoes,” said Gary Daniels, spokesman for the ACLU in Ohio.
“We’re talking about armored personnel carriers and anti-mine technology. That’s exclusively for a military environment. But they’re being used to execute search warrants for, in some cases, small amounts of drugs.”
Critics, particularly of the hulking MRAPs, also wonder about the cost of upkeep.
Sgt. Collins of Fairfield County said the engine and underbody of the vehicle are no different from other large trucks. Many agencies also have received free surplus replacement parts, including tires.
The agencies say they’re saving thousands — even millions — of dollars by using the program.
Said Sheriff Rogers in Adams County: “If we were spending county money to get this thing, I would not have one. I think the sticker on it is $733,000.”
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The surplus program isn’t only about military vehicles and automatic rifles.
North Kingsville, a village of fewer than 3,000 people near Ashtabula, accepted more surplus items than Columbus.
They took fewer guns (only four rifles, one for each full-time officer). But they accepted 10 reflective sights for use with rifles, snow camouflage gear and enough musical instruments to start a strange but robust band.
The village’s tiny police force now also has its own gymnastic and workout equipment in an old garage. Any city employee can use it.
And it has its own Humvee, which the police chief said drew a little flak from some residents who wondered why a four-person division needed such a thing.
“We use the Humvees for meth labs. Dismantling them, to haul evidence away, because sometimes they’re contaminated,” Chief Hugh Flanigan said. And on the musical instruments, he said, “We like to help our schools out. If a kid needs to use it, they borrow it.”
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services.