The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department in rural Indiana just bought an MRAP in an effort to protect its officers and the citizens of the county. An MRAP is a heavily-armored, 55,000-pound, six-wheeled vehicle that was designed to protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The acronym stands for “mine resistant ambush protected.”
Johnson County is the eighth county in Indiana to acquire such a vehicle since 2010, reports the Indianapolis Star. The acquisitions are made possible by a federal program that sells surplus military equipment to local police departments at extremely reduced prices. Johnson County paid only $5,000 for its MRAP, a piece of equipment that originally cost the federal government $733,000.
"We don't have a lot of mines in Johnson County," Sheriff Doug Cox admitted. But he added that his job is “to make sure my employees go home safe.”
That is a hard argument to counter since everyone wants to protect police officers, but critics argue that the increased use of military equipment by local police departments is a disturbing trend.
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Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, recently wrote a column for USA Today that argues against sending MRAPs and other military equipment to small police forces.
“Americans should … be concerned, unless they want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone,” he argued in the column. “Are MRAPs really needed in small-town America? Are improvised explosive devices, grenade attacks, mines, shelling and other war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids, a town of 16,000 people? No.”
Another Indiana sheriff disagrees. Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer recently approved the purchase of an MRAP for his department.
"The United States of America has become a war zone," he said. "There's violence in the workplace, there's violence in schools and there's violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that's what I'm going to do.”
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Pulaski County has 13,124 residents.
The federal programs that make these purchases possible are not new. The Associated Press reported last year that that the Defense Department has sold $4.2 billion worth of property to local police since 1990. The majority of that equipment has gone to departments in rural areas.
What the critics of such acquisitions fear is that owning the equipment will lead to a disproportionate show of force.
Peter Kraska, who recently wrote a book called, "Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing," said that is a real possibility and people should be concerned that the desire to protect officers could lead military-like patrolling of once peaceful streets.
"The problem with that is, it's a real slippery slope and it can become unreasonable," Kaska said. "A traffic stop is extremely dangerous for the police. In a democratic society, though, we wouldn't want to see those traffic stops or even 25 percent of those traffic stops handled by a SWAT team.”