Over three weeks ago protestors flooded the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson. The events brought the city’s race relations to the forefront—but it also brought into question local law enforcement’s use of military equipment. Since 1997, the federal government has distributed over $5 billion worth of military surplus. Equipment like armored vehicles can now be found in cities across the country, including Wichita.
A vehicle resembling a Brink’s truck on steroids is idling on a sizzling-hot parking lot at the Sedgwick County Jail.
It’s called an International MaxxPro, a type of MRAP, which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected—an armored vehicle to you and me.
“Some of the things that we’ve added are a light system, sirens,” says Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Slay. “This is a radio system that comes through here, that’s a speaker for us.”
He’s sitting in the driver’s seat, pointing out the many buttons and switches around him. The county maintains this vehicle, but it’s available to the Wichita Police Department and agencies in 18 other counties. It’s 14-feet high, has over 300 horsepower and is capable of withstanding chemical attacks, land mines and .50 caliber rifle rounds.
“The way this machine is designed, it’s an actual box—once you shut the side doors and bring the back door up, it’s a contained unit,” Slay says. “In Iraq, if they ever had weapons of mass destruction [and encountered] gas, they could seal this vehicle, use internal air, and evacuate the area.”
The truck arrived in Wichita with a desert tan paint job. It was originally manufactured for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it’s navy blue. Lieutenant Dave Mattingly stands beside it, looking up at the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s logo painted on its side.
“We had been considering an armored vehicle for several years, however the cost of an armored vehicle, if you're to purchase one, is somewhere around $500,000,” Mattingly explains. “So, obviously, we don't have that kind of money.”
But, it just so happened that they could get an MRAP for free, thanks to the federal government’s 1033 program, which allows the military to give away unneeded equipment to local law enforcement. That includes everything from computer chairs to helicopters. The vehicles arrive stripped bare, as Mattingly puts it, all their truck could do was start and blow cold air from its A/C unit. Since then they’ve spent about $15,000 installing live video monitors and communication systems. In the four months it’s been in service, it’s been deployed three times.
“Anytime that officers are going to be put in harms way, where there have been shots fired or the potential of shots being fired, this is a vehicle that can take them safely into that situation,” Mattingly says.
Such a situation has already happened. A man in Park City barricaded himself in his home and fired shots through his front door. The MRAP allowed officers to safely park within a few feet of the home. According to Mattingly, this is precisely why they wanted the MRAP, so his officers could enter dangerous situations safely. He says it’s strictly for transportation—there are no fixed weapons on the vehicle.
When asked if the MRAP could be used for crowd control, Mattingly said that while it’s possible, it’s not the reason they acquired it.
At this time, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department has no written protocol for the MRAP’s deployment. Mattingly paints a grim picture for its use, one reminiscent of its original battlefield duties.
“We now have a platform if somebody's injured, if somebody's been shot and shots are still being fired, we can now move into that environment and grab that person and bring them back out to the paramedics.”
Other than the MRAP, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Department has only received uniforms from the 1033 program. They buy tactical gear with the use of asset forfeiture—weapons and money seized from criminals.
The Wichita Police Department hasn’t received any items from 1033; they purchase SWAT equipment through the use of federal homeland security grants. All together, law enforcement agencies in Sedgwick County, including Andover, Bel Aire and Clearwater, have received nearly $1 million dollars worth of military equipment, according to data from NPR. That’s about half the amount of Jackson County, Missouri, where Kansas City is located.
Why these local agencies have access to equipment like this is due to the war on drugs, according to Michael Birzer, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University.
“When we got into the drug war in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and even more so in the 1990’s, we found that police departments were actually using tactical types of gear for civilian police operations,” Birzer says.
He admits that police forces are up against far heavier weapons than ever before, but says there’s a time and a place for a militarized response.
“As we saw in [Ferguson, Missouri] in those first couple of days, you had a lot of peaceful protestors, and then you had a group that were agitating the police and trying to get them to respond. The police were then spotted with military vehicles throughout the community; that is probably not the best way to do that—I think they could have defused it if they would have [not used military equipment].”
According to Birzer, although militarized uniforms, vehicles and weapons are seen in cities both small and large, they’re mostly deployed in minority communities.
“Historically, the police and minorities have had strained relationships in this country. We've been studying that for years, trying to figure out why that is,” Birzer says. “There's a lot of historical context there. So what you do when you have issues in a community, such as drugs, and you bring in all these tactical, SWAT dressed officers and they're walking up and down the street, it looks like an occupying army is taking over the neighborhood.”
The Obama administration announced last week that they would be reviewing the federal government’s ability to give surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
After the footage of riots and protesting in Ferguson, Missouri were broadcast, many cities began looking inward, wondering if the same thing could happen in their own neighborhoods.
Last Thursday night, over 600 people crowded into an auditorium at Wichita East High School. The crowd was predominantly African American. The slogan was “No Ferguson Here.” For two hours, a panel consisting of Mayor Carl Brewer, Deputy Police Chief Norman Mosley, City Manager Bob Layton and a number of other community leaders heard from citizens concerned that the same racial tensions reported in Ferguson are present in Wichita.
For a look at the dialogue that was started last Thursday night between city officials and the people they serve, listen during Friday’s Morning Edition.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur