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December 8, 2014 at 11:30 AM

Why do small police departments need 18-ton armor-plated assault vehicles?

The Aberdeen police Mine-Resistant Ambush Vehicle, leading a parade (photo courtesy KBKW FM 94.7)

The Aberdeen police Mine-Resistant Ambush Vehicle, leading a parade (photo courtesy KBKW FM 94.7)

The U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program was a mostly obscure surplus military equipment program until the Ferguson, Mo., riots, when America suddenly alerted to the creeping militarization of local police.

Details of the decades-old program, which has given away about $5 billion in weapons and equipment since 1990, were opaque until last month, when the Defense Department suddenly granted public disclosure requests. Voila, we now have a nifty database, thanks to the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism outfit focusing on criminal justice.

How did America’s police become an Army? This is how, with details for $30 million in military gear obtained by Washington State law enforcement under the 1033 program (click here to see for yourself).

Scrolling through data posted thanks to a records request for Washington state agencies , you might wonder whether small police forces in  Grandview, and Oak Harbor, and the Mason County Sheriff really need a $733,000, 18-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Vehicle (MRAP). That’s  a fully armor-plated assault vehicle used by the U.S. military in Iraq. In all, 17 law enforcement agencies have received them via the 1033 program.

Several agencies (police departments in CentraliaConnellLong Beach, Moxee, Napavine, Quincy, Raymond, Soap Lake, South Bend, Wapato, Westport, and sheriffs departments in Franklin, GrantLewis, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties) got enough combat-quality rifles (7.62- and 5.56-millimeter) to outfit all or almost all of their entire forces. (Note: the number of sworn officers comes from the FBI’s Crime in the U.S. report).

Does every officer need SWAT-type gear?

Special note, however, goes to the Wahkiakum County Sheriff and Snoqualmie Police. With seven officers serving 4,000 people in a county so small the department has just one incorporated town, the Wahkiakum sheriff got 18 combat rifles, six .45-caliber automatic pistols and six 12-gauge shotguns. Watch yourself in Cathlamet, folks.

The 14-member Snoqualmie department received a mine-resistant vehicle and an armored truck, six combat rifles and six sights. Most surprising: it got three bomb robots ($10,000 a piece), one for every four officers. Really?

The Evergreen State College police department — perhaps preparing for a Star Trek convention gone wrong — received two combat helmets and bullet-proof armor plating.

The Puyallup Tribal and Sequim police departments each got enough night-vision goggles to see through just about anything. The Skamania County Sheriff (19 officers) got a bomb robot and an armored truck

The Thurston County Sheriff, the Forest Service office in Clarkston and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection all tricked out their gyms, getting tens of thousands of dollars of weights, treadmills, elliptical machines, “steppers” and recreational equipment.

In all, it’s an amazing array of gear — outdoor grills, TVs, fax machines, underwear, snowshoes, portable generators, scooters, a lawn mower, field kitchens.

Why is this proliferation of weaponry necessary? I asked Mason County Sheriff Det. William Adam, whose department got an MRAP, an armored truck, 13 combat rifles and 10 bayonets and scabbards (Bayonets? Really?).

“It has nothing to do with the military except they were prior military equipment,” Adam said. “Everything we’ve used is for public safety and public trust.”

The MRAP, for example, was used in a domestic violence situation this summer, allowing officers to get near the house of a barricaded suspect without exposing officers to potential gun fire. I pointed out the sheriff already has what Adam called a “tank” — a smaller armored vehicle. The MRAP, he said, is so intimidating that suspects will simply give up. “We call that a win-win situation,” he said.

The bayonets, he said, are basically oversized utility knives, useful for backwoods search-and-rescue and wilderness training. “Yes, the way they’re described is odd,” he conceded.

He notes that small police departments disproportionately benefit from surplus gear because they’re more cash-strapped than urban forces. “We’re interested in getting equipment that does not cost us anything. Our budget has been so curtailed, so we have to find ways to stretch the dollar,” said Adam.

I respect the dollar-stretching, but law enforcement is missing the costs — to public trust, and to potential misuse — of appearing to gear up for battle with civilians.

Here’s the Marshall Project’s widget detailing 1033 program donations. What do you see?

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