Law Enforcement’s Use of Military Equipment Scrutinized After Ferguson Protests

Critics say Department of Defense 1033 program ‘militarizes’ the police, but local sheriff says equipment essential

By Justin Franz

 Soon after images of battle-ready police officers emerged from Ferguson, Missouri, where protests erupted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager, critics began to decry a little known Department of Defense program that offers decommissioned military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

The defense department’s 1033 Program has been blamed for the “militarization” of police forces across the country, an opinion aided by images of Missouri officers looking more like soldiers than peace keepers. But Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said the 1033 Program has enabled his department to acquire useful equipment it couldn’t otherwise afford, particularly a mine-resistant armored vehicle.

“I’m somewhat offended by the headlines in the national media that says law enforcement is becoming militarized just because the military gave us a piece of equipment that offers our officers some protection,” Curry said. “We’re not militarizing the sheriff’s office because someone gave us a rig that protects our personnel.”

Curry referred to a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, that the county sheriff’s department received in 2013. According to data obtained by the New York Times from the Defense Department, Flathead County is the only law enforcement agency in the state of Montana to receive a mine-resistant vehicle through the 1033 Program. Lincoln, Powell and Roosevelt counties have all received armored vehicles through the program.

Curry said the sheriff’s office has two armored vehicles that it can use when the SWAT team is deployed. The newer vehicle was previously used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Curry said when the department applied for the vehicle it wasn’t interested in the fact that it was mine-resistant.

“The bottom is mine-resistant but we don’t care about that, we just care that it’s bulletproof,” he said.

The Kalispell Police Department also has an armored vehicle, called a BearCat, built by Lenco Armored Vehicles for domestic use in 2007. The vehicle cost $300,000 and weighs 26,000 pounds and features an armored body, bulletproof glass and puncture-resistant tires, according to Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset.

Nasset said before the department got the vehicle, which was paid for through a private donation, the city’s SWAT team had no armored vehicle to protect itself during live-shooter scenarios.

“It’s a tool and just because it looks like a piece of military equipment doesn’t mean it is military equipment,” Nasset said. “To send a SWAT team out with no armored vehicle is ludicrous.”

Nasset said the vehicle is usually deployed anywhere from two to six times a year and on occasion has been sent to other communities, including Missoula, where the vehicle was actually shot at. Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe said his department also received an armored vehicle last year but they have yet to use it.

All three local law enforcement officials said the armored vehicles are used sparingly, but that it’s important to have them available when a dangerous situation arises.

“We work for the public, not against it and this equipment is for their safety as much as it is our safety,” Nasset said.

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