Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Police "Militarization" in SW Michigan

2015 file photo of surplus military vehicles used by the Barry County Sheriff's Department
Chris Killian

Recent video of police in the Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, using heavy military equipment has raised eyebrows nationwide. But some police agencies in southwest Michigan have received similar equipment from a previously little-known Pentagon program. "Militarization" of police forces has a lot of critics. But some law enforcement officials say the military surplus gear can come in handy.

Behind the Barry County Sheriff’s office in Hastings, three large vehicles sit near a stand of spruce trees. They’re not police cruisers. There’s a Humvee and a two-tracked armored personnel carrier resembling a small tank painted in gray and black camouflage with “Emergency Response Team” written on the side. But it’s what’s in-between them that really catches the eye. It’s an MRAP, a 16-ton, 20-foot-long “Mine-Resistant Armored Protected” vehicle designed to withstand an IED explosion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicle also has an armored turret meant to house a .50 caliber machine gun.

Dar Leaf has been Barry County’s sheriff for a decade. He opens the rear door of the MRAP and steps inside its cramped interior. Sand from the Middle East still sits on the floor of the musty space. Barry County is mostly rural. Its largest city Hastings has just over 7,000 residents. But Leaf says tragedy can strike anywhere and his force needs to be prepared. Besides the heavy vehicles, Leaf says his department has received other surplus military hardware including assault rifles and five grenade launchers used to lob tear gas. Leaf says that stockpile gives him peace of mind.

Credit Chris Killian
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf

“I can’t imagine what those officers have to go through when they go to a school shooting. I can’t imagine and I don’t want to be there. So this gives me peace of mind. If you look at it, if you picture little kids, if you pack them all up through here, you could fit 30 kids in here. It’s gonna be tight, but I can pack them up in here and get them out.”

Images of police in Ferguson, Missouri, wearing military armor and helmets, riding on top of tanks and aiming assault rifles at unarmed citizens, sparked shock and outrage across the nation and internationally. Some started calling Ferguson “Fergunistan.” Most of the hardware comes from the 1033 Program, a Defense Department initiative that funnels used military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, usually free of charge. The program has been running since the early 1990s and recent wars have created a steady stream of gear moving from military bases to police agencies.

Every county sheriff’s office in southwest Michigan has added some sort of military material to their inventories since 2006, the earliest year data are available. Some counties, like Barry and Allegan, have inventories that are pages long. But another rural county - Saint Joseph - took possession of just two items: an M-14 rifle and a utility truck.

The head of Western Michigan University's criminal justice program, Ron Kramer, says that's cause for concern: "I think overall the militarization of policing in the United States, the blurring of the lines between the military dealing with foreign enemies and domestic policing forces, the blurring of that line is to me a disturbing trend.”

Law enforcement leaders often say they would only use heavy ex-military weapons and vehicles as a last resort. But Kramer and other opponents say, once the supplies become part of an agency’s inventory, they become part of its culture too. As Kramer puts it, “You give a small child a hammer and they find that everything has to be pounded on, right? That’s sort of a flip way to talk about the fact that within an organizational culture, the use of this equipment and these technologies will become normalized.”

This is still a badge; it is not a swastika. We have to prepare for the worst. We have to prepare for things you do not like talking about. - Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf

Sheriffs’ officials in southwest Michigan give several reasons for having military supplies, including getting emergency personnel down a winter road impassable to regular vehicles. Allegan County has the region’s most expensive piece of equipment acquired through the 1033 program: an anti-mine vehicle that cost the nation’s taxpayers nearly $900,000. Officials at the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department say it’s been used twice so far. In both cases they say it helped protect deputies sent to deal with heavily-armed people who threatened to commit suicide. Both times, those lives were saved. But there are also budget reasons that make this kind of equipment attractive to police agencies. Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller says participating in the 1033 program can be a way to fill in the gaps.

“Sometimes law enforcement is able to augment those budgets by using some of the equipment the military gives us and taking those monies and using those for personnel. So it’s kind of a switch off as to how things are paid for.”

And for those wondering why any police chief or sheriff would want a big bomb-resistant vehicle cast off by the military, Fuller says can sometimes face situations similar to those in combat areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. He points to incidents like the Boston Marathon bombings or explosive devices found at abortion clinics. But Fuller says military surplus gear must be used properly and responsibly: “I think you have to hold individual agencies, or individual chiefs or sheriffs accountable, to how they use the equipment that they have. That’s the bigger picture, as opposed to being overly concerned about some of the vehicles, some of the weaponry...that they bring into their organizations to help protect the citizens.”

Back in Hastings, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf says he’s heard the criticisms of the 1033 program. When asked how he might calm the nerves of someone anxious about his department’s possession of military-grade weapons, he takes off his sidearm, removes an ammunition clip, and puts both on a table in front of him.

I’ve got this sidearm on my hip. I’ve been law enforcement since 1986 and never ever had to use it except for dispatching a deer that was injured. But I had it just in case. I look at it as a tool. We’re not here to intimidate people. This is still a badge, it’s not a swastika. We have to prepare for the worst. We have to prepare for things you don’t like talking about.”

Revelations about the militarization of civilian police agencies comes at a time of growing public distrust of local police, especially among black Americans. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that four-in-ten respondents had “little to no confidence” that police would use the equipment appropriately. Although the Pentagon says the 1033 program has helped local law enforcement, the Obama Administration plans to review the program to determine if it’s still necessary.

Jeff Hadley, the chief of Kalamazoo’s Department of Public Safety, says his agency has received very few items through the 1033 program: just one armored truck and some night rifle sights. He says it also got a dozen or so assault rifles but ended up returning them to the military. Hadley says the recent increase in shootings in Kalamazoo would not have made him re-consider using those kinds of weapons. Hadley says the best weapon in the arsenal is public trust.

“A community and their relationship with their law enforcement agency is like a marriage. But there ain’t no divorce, ‘cause we ain’t going anywhere, you know what I mean? So how do you constantly work on that, every day, to have some trustful relationships when things happen, because things are gonna happen.”