Heavily armored combat vehicles–on a school campus near you

Sgt. Jim Schaefers is certainly not opposed to toys. Schaefers coordinates the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s 1033 Program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to take in what the U.S. military no longer wants.

But those aren’t the toys we mean.

The friendly sergeant works in an office that’s stocked with Kiss figurines, presidential bobbleheads and a model depicting a scene from that cult Canadian sketch show, SCTV. Back when Canadian comedy was funny, Schaefers quipped.

He recently helped the department acquire nine bomb disposal robots, including an MK3 Mod 0 with quick-disconnect pneumatic wheels for increased speed and a smoother ride. But when it came time for the military to unload its fleet of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that had survived urban combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Schaefers passed.

“Don’t ask me if we have an MRAP,” he offered. “We don’t have one of those.”

Many departments do—and they tend to be tucked in rural hamlets, the burbs and on school campuses.

Law enforcement agencies in at least 26 California counties have procured MRAPs in recent years, according to data provided by the California Office of Emergency Services, which curates federal surplus programs in this state. Sacramento, El Dorado, Nevada, San Joaquin and Yolo all have one, while six counties have multiple MRAPs. Los Angeles tops that list with nine.

On the MRAP bandwagon are school district police in Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the Saddleback College Police Department in Mission Viejo. Its crime blotter is mostly filled with citations for marijuana possession and public intoxication.

The armored vehicles have become visual shorthand for those who argue that municipal constables look more like occupying forces than protectors of the public.

“I think some people are worried about the crowd-control aspect,” acknowledged Sgt. Mike Wells of the Citrus Heights Police Department, which requisitioned an MRAP last year. “It’s not a tank.”

Cops like Wells defend the tricked-out humvees. The “repurposed emergency rescue vehicle,” he said, isn’t outfitted with offensive weaponry and serves the same purpose as a Lenco BearCat armored personnel van for agencies that can’t afford the $650,000-plus price tag.

During the last decade, MRAPs served as constabulary weapons in an urban combat setting, explained William Vizzard, a Sacramento State University criminal justice professor and former law enforcement officer himself. They were designed to patrol enemy highways and protect against roadside bombs, but weren’t standard fare for infantry units.

Here’s how the U.S. Marine Corps describes their purpose:

With V-shaped hulls, raised chassis and armored plating, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) has proven to be the single most effective counter to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Blast-resistant underbodies and layers of thick, armored glass offer unparalleled protection, while all-terrain suspension and runflat combat tires ensure Marines can operate in complex and highly restricted rural, mountainous and urban terrains.

Now that their tours are largely over, the military has a lot of these intimidating-looking rigs to unload. “They don’t know what to do with the damn MRAPs,” Vizzard said. “They really don’t belong on the battlefield.”

The question, now, is whether they belong on city streets.

Critics believe the 1033 Program and others like it allow municipal police forces across the country to collect military hardware better suited for brutalizing terrorists than intercepting car thieves.

It took a gunned-down teenager and his city’s mournful anger to spark this conversation about the appropriate role of law enforcement. Even President Barack Obama’s attention to the plain-sight reality of riot-geared cops was only jostled by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, where the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown exposed racial tensions in a city that distrust its protectors.

Evaluating law enforcement interactions during the height of the Occupy movement three years ago, a team of UC Berkeley data-crunchers says the way cops dress might have something to do with whether peaceful protests devolve into teargas-blasted riots.

“Thinking about Ferguson, our research will be able to show how the odds of violence increase drastically, for instance, when police show up in riot gear,” Nick Adams, principal investigator of the Deciding Force Project, said in a statement.

Acknowledging a global spate of altercations between protesters and the authorities—from the Arab Spring to government unrest in Ukraine and recent trouble in Missouri—the Deciding Force Project is looking to explain why police respond to protests the way they do by zeroing in on more than 35,000 reported interactions between demonstrators and the authorities during the Occupy movement.

Writing that it’s neither for nor against police or protesters, the team states says in its project description that it hopes “our research will foster conversations within and between these parties to diminish violent escalations during future episodes of political contestation.”

Meanwhile, the Cato Institute has attempted to quantify something similar with its National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which scans news reports to produce daily summaries of alleged acts of police misconduct. An interactive map of “botched paramilitary” raids also culls media reports for instances where authorities reportedly detained or harmed innocent or nonviolent subjects.

In 2011, the map cited two examples in California—one in which a consultant on a television crime drama was mistakenly detained during a marijuana raid in San Francisco, and an incident in Stockton in which authorities stormed the home of a man whose estranged wife had defaulted on student loans.

The map didn’t include another 2011 incident, from Davis, where federal authorities looking for a child pornographer kicked in the door of a home occupied by foreign students. No arrests were made, but a young Chinese woman miscarried.

Law enforcement agencies working in Sacramento County have received north of $15.7 million worth of surplus military equipment since 2006, and more than 2,858 items. But this is a conservative estimate, not taking into account frequent instances where a department received multiple, sometimes dozens, of the same item. (For instance, 10 gun-cleaning kits worth $874.60 total and received in July 2013 were valued at their individual worth of $87.46.)

The pace and severity of surplus equipment flowing into Sacramento County has slowed since SN&R and others reported on this issue in 2012. Most of the big-ticket items coming here in recent years are used to dispose of explosives or repair helicopters, while tools, parts, clothing (tons of combat boots), camping equipment and office equipment remain perennial staples.

The Roseville Police Department last used the program to acquired a utility truck in 2012. The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t used it since procuring 29 M16 rifles in 2007. The Galt Police Department hasn’t used the program since 2006, when it obtained 10 M16s worth $49,900. Folsom police haven’t used it since receiving an armored truck in 1999.

Before requisitioning its MRAP, the Citrus Heights Police Department last used the program in 2006, when it acquired six 7.62-millimeter rifles—better known as M14s. “We have not tried to get a whole bunch of stuff,” Wells said.

Police departments in the cities of Rancho Cordova, Auburn and Rocklin haven’t received any tactical equipment, according to Cal OES records.

Even so, some 13,000 California agencies benefit each year from military re-gifting programs that exist to make room for new military toys. Troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq have meant fewer such toys to be handed down, but with military commanders and some conservatives cracking the door for a ground war against ISIS, that won’t necessarily remain the case.

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