How Tan Was My MRAP
The law enforcement of our country should be protect and serve, not acquire and conquer
The difference between a lie and something that is presented as a justification/reason/excuse/exaggeration is mostly in the ability of the recipient to discern the difference.
Anytime anyone in a governmental position utters the phrase “at no cost” it is time to get to discerning.
When a government official is proclaiming their brand new, half-a-million dollar, 32K pound, desert painted, military surplus Force Protection Cougar H vehicle, you are about to be taken for a ride.
Timing is everything. The small city of Moundsville, on the edge of West Virginia, found itself thrust into the national conversation on policing thanks to what would normally be an innocuous local news story:
Moundsville, West Virginia, population eight thousand odd and falling, is tucked up against the Ohio River south of the Wheeling area of West Virginia. Its police force of around 20 protect a city formerly famous for its preserved and namesake Native American burial mounds and as the location of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. Now known for its burial mounds and the tourist attraction of the decommissioned West Virginia State Penitentiary. Like most of the area, Moundsville is struggling with economic hard times and a declining population. What is increasing, though, is the police fleet of vehicles.
Here comes that phrase we were talking about, watch for it:
The Moundsville Police Department unveiled a “tactical resource vehicle” they obtained from the military at no cost as part of a federal government program on Thursday.
The vehicle is a 2019 Cougar mine resistance ambush protection vehicle, or MRAP, and was obtained under a federal program that makes surplus equipment available to states and cities, according, to Moundsville Police Chief Tom Mitchell. This particular piece of equipment was initially purchased by the federal government for the U.S. Marine Corps and is manufactured by Force Protection Inc., a division of General Dynamics.
“We could use it for various things,” Mitchell said. He said the department can use it as a “tactical resource vehicle” for various scenarios…Mitchell said the protection vehicle was obtained by the police department at no cost and he advised city council about his department taking possession of it during Tuesday evening’s council meeting.
I could use a shotgun for crutch. You could use a colander for a helmet. We could ride Alpacas around for transportation. But that isn’t what those things are designed for.
MRAPs are not designed for, needed, useful, or appropriate for local law enforcement.
Of course you can point to exceptions. Large cities with tactical reasons probably should have a few. Yes during disasters like flooding and storms they can be somewhat useful. But not every city, town, and sheriff’s department is the NYPD, and those situations of natural disasters usually wind up involving the national guard that already has such equipment. The exceptions prove the rule that cities like Moundsville, WV, do not need MRAPs/MRUVs for a multitude of reasons that far outweigh any rationalizations offered for acquiring them.
First and foremost, they are not free.
Sure, the DOD’s 1033 and similar programs “give” them to law enforcement as part of a surplus disposal program. But it isn’t out of charity. The well-documented glutinous spending during the Global War on Terror resulted in things like the MRAP/MRUVs being purchased in massive quantities with no long term plan to maintain the notoriously needy vehicles. After the sequestration budget cuts, thousands upon thousands of the vehicles that were built for service in Iraq and Afghanistan but have little other uses had to go. The absurdity of vehicles too expensive for the military to maintain, each costing between $500K to over a million dollars a piece depending, being “given” away is yet another example of the excessive bloat in the DOD.
But give them to local law enforcement, who are so eager to have military hardware that there is a waiting list, and problem solved.
Problem solved for the DOD, but the problems are just starting for the departments that now have a very big line item budget amendment. While major cities can handle such things, the same operating and maintenance cost that the federal government found unsustainable doesn’t go away through the magical gifting of surplus to municipalities.
As McHenry County, Illinois found out with their MRAPs and other surplus acquired in 2015:
The Humvee’s desert tan paint job, like that of the SWAT team’s new MRAP, needs to be painted over. Emergency management put in a supplemental funding request to county staff because the department has no budget line item for such work.
The sheriff’s office does, because it has a garage and maintains a fleet of vehicles. But while acquiring MRAPs only cost the sheriff’s office and the Spring Grove Police Department a respective $1,975 and $4,000, there will be costs to their respective governments to convert them from battlefield to domestic law enforcement use, such as new paint, graphics, and installing lights.
And of course, there’s the cost of insurance and maintenance.
This presents a quandary for county government — while the sheriff’s office has a vehicle budget, vehicle and liability insurance is handled by one fund for all departments, Associate County Administrator for Finance Ralph Sarbaugh said. Besides the MRAPs and the Humvees, the sheriff’s office has obtained for itself three ATVs, a Kawasaki Mule, and four motorcycles, records show. It acquired a semitrailer for the Division of Transportation, three motorcycles for the Conservation District, and two vans for building operations.
“It adds cost to the overall budget. There are now more fuel and maintenance costs, they all have to be on the automobile or equipment insurance, and some of that gets to be quite expensive,” Sarbaugh said.
The county’s proposed budget policy, updated every year, now contains a recommendation by Sarbaugh that any acquisition of government surplus require County Board approval if it will result in additional costs for maintenance, fuel, insurance, storage, tracking and training. The County Board has not yet taken up the budget policy for a vote.
“The County Board is responsible for all facilities and equipment of the county, and even though it’s free, it’s not free,” Sarbaugh said.
Eisenberg, the Spring Grove village president, said that Chief Sanders’ goal in acquiring surplus has been to help the village obtain needed goods at discount, not to militarize his police force of 14 full- and part-time officers.
“If they’re willing to give it away, he’s willing to find a use for it,” Eisenberg said.
“Find a way to use it” is not good governance. In the current environment of policing being under the microscope with long-overdue questions of over-militarization, police tactics, and law enforcement accountability, the easy and flippant lip service of “at no cost” and “find a way to use it” are grossly irresponsible. You can call it rationalization, or reasoning, or excuses, or whatever else but telling the public “at no cost” is just a lie by other nomenclature.
Such unaccountability costs more than just money. At the core of much of out current angst is a lack of trust in institutions of government in general, and policing in particular. Police departments that happily accept all sorts of military largess that cannot be straight with the tax payers as to why they need it — not to mention having the integrity to admit just because something is free doesn’t mean you need it — plants seeds that if left unchecked become choking undergrowth to effective civic administration and trust in government. If you increase your budget to have it, you will feel compelled to use it, whether needed or not. If you use it, then you have to fund it. Taxpayers will be thrilled to death to have their taxes and fees raised just so their police can joyride in their new war toys to justify it all.
Stopping such nonsense requires some advanced and involved citizenship, though. Citizens willing to show up at council meetings and voting booths to hold their elected officials responsible for how their government across the street functions. But it’s vital. If we’ve learned anything the last few weeks as a nation it should hopefully be that police accountability and civic responsibility to care for our communities works best as preventative actions. Prevention that is far better than streets full of aggrieved folks and on-edge cops, where all sorts of bad things might happen.
Just acquiring stuff that looks cool, for the purposes of “do something”, and the rationalization that we want it so lets find a reason to get it, is fake leadership at its worst. Taking the waste from the military and putting it on the balance sheets of local government is not good management, stewardship, or leadership. Putting weapon systems designed for combat in foreign lands — even though “demilitarized” — on the streets at home against fellow citizens should be last resort, not first call. The law enforcement of our country should be protect and serve, not acquire and conquer. Our government, both local and federal, should be accountable for how things happened, why they happened, and why the bad things that are preventable were not nipped in the bud, both fiscally and otherwise.
Of course there is some reason somewhere for nearly anything, especially in the name of the public good. But all things need to be discussed and debated as to what they will actually do, and used for, and the need and expense of it all. “We’ll find a way to use it” is not good enough anymore. It never was.
Just think of the cost.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on June 19, 2020.