By Tom Steward │ Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
Old tanks, jeeps, artillery and other military leftovers used to end up in city parks.
Now, hardware from the Iraq and Afghan wars often winds up in the hands of police and other law enforcement agencies — items from “paperclips to airplanes” at essentially no cost, courtesy of the Law Enforcement Support Office of the Department of Defense.
A state Department of Public Safety briefing video for law enforcement ticks off the gear: ambulances, armored vehicles, helicopters, handcuffs, riot shields, cranes, fuel tankers, rifles, pickups, holsters, bayonets and grenade launchers.
All this is available for potential procurement, provided local authorities demonstrate a direct application to their mission.
“Any type of thing that you can think of that can help support the process of law enforcement here in the state of Minnesota,” Kim Ketterhagen, an official with the Minnesota Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says in the 2013 video. “… So, please reach out to us and obtain this equipment. It’s there for the asking.”
Authorities say concerns over safety, training and emergency preparedness drives much of the demand.
“My squad cars aren’t bulletproof and this is deer-hunting country, so we assume pretty much anybody out in a farmhouse here is armed with a high-powered rifle,” said Sheriff Robin Cole about Pine County’s 20-ton mine-resistant vehicle, obtained for $3,000 in transportation costs. ”So needlessly exposing my officers to the potential of being shot from a quarter-mile away is not something I’m willing to do, if we have a vehicle to help mitigate that.”
Under the federal government’s 1033 Surplus Equipment Program, more than $25 million in military surplus weapons, vehicles and gear has been scooped by 325 Minnesota local police departments and 85 county sheriff departments. Several state agencies also participate, including the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Minnesota State Patrol.
“It can be a way to re-utilize things that would otherwise be destroyed or junked and save some people some money in the process,” said Lt. Erik Stenemann of the University of Minnesota Police Department. The campus police received eight M-16 rifles.
The Minnesota Public Safety Department provided Watchdog Minnesota Bureau with a breakdown of 8,600 items procured by local and state authorities, going back to an armored vehicle obtained by Otter Tail County in 1994. The equipment runs the gamut from hundreds of trauma and first-aid kits to night-vision sniper scopes and assault packs. There’s even an indoor rock-climbing wall and gym equipment, which the Breckenridge Police Department got in 2012.
Weapons account for about one-third of the inventory: 1,973 M-16 rifles, 610 M-14 rifles, 245 .45-caliber pistols, 68 “riot type” 12-gauge shotguns and 10 grenade launchers for tear gas and smoke grenades. The Minneapolis Police Department ordered 162 M-16s, while the Department of Public Safety and State Patrol each got 210 of the military rifles. The city of St. Louis Park procured three grenade launchers, according to the DPS spreadsheet.
The checklist includes 24 armored trucks, seven mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and seven Humvee utility trucks used by SWAT teams and for rescues and other emergency operations. A Staples officer volunteered his time to pick up a used Humvee in Jefferson City, Mo., which carries a sticker price of nearly $50,000, brand new.
“The Humvee vehicle will be used as a mobile incident response unit and not for daily patrol,” according to the city of Staples’ August 2012 newsletter. “… The Humvee requisitioned by the police department is a 4-door model with a hard shell slant-back powered by a 6.2 liter diesel engine with 32,548 miles on it. The interior is strictly utilitarian and lacks any creature comforts such as a radio or air conditioning.”
State officials track the weapons and other gear through on-site audits and serial numbers. The checklist includes four Bell helicopters, obtained over the years by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“The taxpayers made out huge on this deal. The air time that we flew on these ships and the military, it was a great opportunity,” said Roger Tietz, operations support manager for the DNR enforcement division. “You can’t speak against it. It put us into a flight program we probably would not have been able to start up.”
While the procurement program dates to 1993, the arrival of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected — MRAP — armored vehicles in recent months has touched off a national discussion of the “militarization of police.”
“It may seem like overkill, it may also seem like a cost savings. I suppose it all depends on what your needs are,” said Capt. Stenemann of the University of Minnesota Police Department. “… I can see where someone would look at a program like this, and the hot topic these days is the militarization of police departments, and this is it. But really, it’s kind of like sifting through a Dumpster in many ways.”
Minnesota was reportedly allotted 18 MRAPs — with seven already on the ground in Dakota, Olmsted, Pine, Sherburne, St. Louis and Wright counties and the city of St. Cloud.
“So how do we maintain the balance between the need for a robust law enforcement presence, which has the capability to meet the demands of the 21st century, with the need to preserve the basic civil liberties outlined in the Constitution?” Tom McGregor, a citizen watchdog now running for county commissioner, wrote in Wright County Watch this past fall.
“Any equipment this office owns, as long as I am sheriff, will be used only within the constraints of the Constitution of this country,” said Sheriff Cole. “That means when we use our vehicles to do some sort of police action, number one, someone’s life will be in dire jeopardy or we will have a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause to be using the vehicle in that way.”
A key reason for Wright County’s MRAP: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s security concerns over the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant. County authorities stress the defensive capabilities of the 24-ton MRAP, still on its first tank of fuel.
“There’s no gun mount on it; as a matter of fact, it doesn’t even have gun ports. There’s no little window we can even open up to stick a gun out … ,” said Capt. Todd Hoffman of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office. “So it’s basically a big piece of body armor that you can put some deputies in and drive up to a scene.”
Pine County’s MRAP has already seen action in two drug raids since arriving this past fall. It will see more action this summer in parades and fairs.
“The kids love to crawl around on it,” Cole said. “People have received it very well, and it’s free. It’s hard to pass up free considering what one of these things costs.”
It’s the second armored vehicle obtained by Pine County authorities. Perhaps some day one of those things will be put to use the old-fashioned way — as a static display in a local park.
Contact Tom Steward at email@example.com.