WEST MICHIGAN (June, 25, 2014) – The American Civil Liberties Union calls it the militarization of police: local law enforcement agencies, getting their hands on military-grade equipment, including vehicles that are protected from explosives.
Across the country, there are at least 600.
The MRAPS are massive, built to withstand the blast from a mine or improvised explosive device out on the battlefield.
“You’ve had two presidents now say it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when these terrorist attacks are going to happen and we have to be ready for that,” said Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.
That’s part of the reason law enforcement agencies across Michigan are getting MRAPS.
There are at least 7 in west Michigan, in Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Muskegon and Newaygo counties.
They look intimidating, standing 10 feet tall, 20 feet long and weighing nearly 39,000 pounds.
Some even come with gun turrets.
“We don’t have any large guns affixed to it,” said Capt. Mike Poulin, with the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Dept. “The vehicle itself has no weapons affixed to it. It’s a tool to transport and secure officers.”
Law enforcement agencies have been able to obtain the vehicles through a military surplus program called the Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.
“We’re utilizing equipment that’s coming from the military,” said Capt. Poulin. “It’s not changing our tactics. It’s not changing our civil responsibility to the people that we have. We’re not becoming a different police department.”
According to the military’s disposition services website, the program has transferred more than $4.3 billion worth of equipment to local law enforcement.
That includes 6 vehicles in Muskegon, three of which are armored, and four in Barry County.
“We need the people of west Michigan to understand these vehicles, this equipment, that we have is here to serve them,” said Capt. Poulin. “In doing so, we need to protect our officers as well.”
While the most obvious acquisitions include the armored personnel carriers, agencies can also get their hands on weapons, Camelbak hydration systems, even toilet paper.
But groups like the ACLU say this is leading to the militarization of police.
“That’s one of those fine lines you have to walk,” said Sheriff Leaf. “You have to have somebody who understands what people’s rights are as the leader in the community who has one of these things. [It’s], obviously, a tool of last resort.”
The civil liberties group says it’s time to de-escalate and reduce the arsenals of law enforcement.
But departments argue MRAPS can act as deterrent.
“This type of vehicle here offers up protection for us,” said Capt. Poulin. “If it’s something we can take to a scene and don’t use it, I’m all for it.”
In an effort to show the community what these vehicles are and are not, Muskegon County has taken its MRAP to local events, and Sheriff Leaf says he welcomes questions from locals about why a vehicle like this is necessary in Barry County.