Regional
8:48 am
Mon July 7, 2014

ACLU Warns of 'Militarization of Local Police'

This MRAP vehicle is similar to trucks flowing to Wisconsin law enforcement agencies under the federal government's military surplus program.
Credit NASA/Kim Shiflett

Police departments around the country, including here in Wisconsin, have been acquiring surplus military hardware, raising concerns from civil liberties groups.

As the federal government ends military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s giving items, such as mine-resistant trucks, to local law enforcement. In May, the military surplus program sent Neenah police a heavy armored truck, called a Caiman.

“It’s quite tall, 10 or 11 feet tall,” says Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson. “The wheels come up above my waist and it’s a six-wheeled vehicle. And I got to tell you, when I first saw the picture of that thing I said, no way. That’s just too much.”

U.S. soldiers had used the Caiman in Iraq and Afghanistan mainly to transport troops and equipment. Wilkinson says the Neenah Police Department will use the vehicle when necessary to protect officers and citizens.

“We do need something that stops bullets because we do periodically end up handling calls either with gunfire or potential gunfire and we want to be able to move people in or out of a scene safely without exposing them to the gunfire,” Wilkinson says.

The Caiman replaces a Vietnam-era truck the Neenah PD had been using for 15 years. Wilkinson says it used that old vehicle five times last year, including when two armed robbers held up a liquor store. He says he’s sensitive to concerns people may have about an imposing piece of military machinery, but assures them that police will limit its use.

“Some people have referred to it as a tank, and they’re picturing a gun mounted on the top, a machine gun, gun ports with the barrels of long guns pointing out and that kind of a thing. It is not that,” Wilkinson says.

The interior of a Caiman military truck. The Neenah Police Department received a used Caiman from the military.
Credit NASA/Kim Shiflett

Law enforcement agencies across the country are getting all kinds of used military hardware, according the American Civil Liberties Union. It requested public records from a few dozen departments. Besides armored trucks, they’ve gotten gear such as battering rams and machine guns.

Chris Ahmuty is head the ACLU of Wisconsin. He says the records also show a growing number of agencies using their new tanks and trucks to execute search warrants.

“You know when you have a SWAT team show up in the middle of the night at a home where there may be children or elderly and they’re there to serve a warrant in a drug case, you’re going to terrify people and neighborhoods and occasionally mistakes even happen. And you’re really not adding to public safety,” Ahmuty says.

The ACLU report cites examples of what it says were mistakes. They included a SWAT team in Atlanta dropping a grenade into a crib, severely injuring a 19-month-old boy and, in the end, not making any arrests.

Ahmuty says excessive force, or at least the show of excessive force, has also been used in cases where the suspect was mentally ill.

“So you have the mentally ill person who feels paranoid and I don’t think the way to deal with that is to have a SWAT team outside his door,” Ahmuty says.

Ahmuty says the ACLU sought records from multi-jurisdictional drug task forces in Wisconsin. But he says they either did not respond or said they didn’t have information about surplus military gear. The state Justice Department did supply a list of equipment that’s come into Wisconsin and where it’s gone.

Another recipient is the Brown County Sheriff’s Department. Lt. Dan Sandberg says this spring, it got an MRAP, which is a 14-ton truck designed to withstand improvised explosive devices.

“We had it out at a car show a couple months ago and we had people coming up asking a lot of questions, saying, why do you need something like this? And once you start explaining some of the incidents to them and the stuff that’s gone on, they understand,” Sandberg says.

Sandberg says incidents include approaching barricaded or heavily armed suspects, or responding to natural disasters. He takes issue with the ACLU claims that the flow of vehicles and gear from war zones is breeding a military mindset among local police or prompting the use of excessive force or firepower.

“We are a civilian law enforcement agency. We’re not a military organization. And I was in the military. Law enforcement is far from it,” Sandberg says.

The ACLU’s Chris Ahmuty says the group wants police to have the equipment they need to fight crime, but hopes agencies set guidelines before adding tools from war.