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The Banality of Police Militarization: How Champaign-Urbana Acquired Its MRAP

Internal communications show how one police department acquired hand-me-down military equipment from the Department of Defense.

A mine-resistant armor-protected (MRAP) vehicle. (Photo: Raymond Wambsgans / Flickr)

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Earlier this summer, a local newspaper in Illinois ran a story about how the sheriff in their town had acquired a mine-resistant armor-protected (MRAP) vehicle. Titled “Something Big Just Arrived,” the article touted the benefits of the new truck. Yet in the wake of Ferguson, a growing number of people are raising questions about police militarization in their cities. Why does Champaign-Urbana, a small Midwestern college town home to the University of Illinois, need such over-sized military hardware? Human rights scholar and anti-racist activist Belden Fields recently addressed the local county board about how “a kind of we-them mentality has developed which requires overwhelming force in order to subject people to the discipline of law.” He called on the sheriff to scrap the MRAP.

From Warfighter to Crimefighter

These MRAP trucks are being distributed through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which has as its motto “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” The program was developed in the 1990s at the height of the gang scare to provide police with “excess” military equipment such as semiautomatic rifles, helicopters, and bulletproof helmets and vests. In Ferguson, we witnessed police dressed in camouflage and body armor aiming M-16 rifles at protesters, aided by infrared sights at night.

During the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were high numbers of US soldiers in Hummers being killed by roadside bombs. In response, Congress approved the purchase of vehicles that could withstand such blasts. Since 2007, an estimated $45 billion has been spent on MRAPs. These massive machines can weigh up to 50,000 pounds due to their heavy armor plating. As troops have been scaled back in Iraq and Afghanistan, MRAP vehicles are being offloaded to local police departments. They are given away through the 1033 program, free of charge, if departments can cover transportation. Cities large and small have requested them, with some major metropolitan areas owning multiple MRAPs.

A recent ACLU report and several stories in The New York Times have exposed the 1033 program (click here for a map of equipment unloaded by the program, including MRAPs). After finding out about the Champaign County sheriff’s MRAP, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and received a couple hundred pages of documents, most of which are emails, of communications between the local sheriff’s office, the manager of the 1033 program and other regional law enforcement agencies. What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at how this program is being carried out at the local level.

AWESOME MRAP Opportunity

On June 10, 2013, the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office received an email from Greg Dangremond, the tactical vehicle lead with the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) in Battle Creek, Michigan announcing the “great news” that they were “just a few days away from allocating over 500 MRAPs!” The memo was passed along from Tracy Nichols, assistant state coordinator for LESO based in Springfield, Illinois, whose email signature includes a quotation from George Orwell: “We all sleep safe in our beds because there are rough men who stand ready in the night to visit the violence on those who would do us harm.” It went out to more than 20 police agencies across Illinois.

Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh sent the query to Lt. Brian Mennenga, a commander of the SWAT team, who responded yes, they were “definitely still interested.” Since early 2012, the county had been on a waiting list. The SWAT team needed a replacement for their “aging” 1986 Brinks armored truck. But in this initial round, three other agencies were selected over Champaign, one of them apparently Kankakee County which received an MRAP in fall 2013.

In November 2013, Champaign received an email from Illinois LESO state coordinator Curtis Howard who said he recently heard about what Dangremond called an “AWESOME MRAP Opportunity.” There were “100s” of Caiman MRAPs available “in as good or better condition than the MRAPs already allocated!” The catch was, they were located 1,000 miles away in Sealy, Texas where BAE Systems, the British-based defense contractor, was closing its plant. Mennenga checked back in with LESO to make sure he had his paperwork together, telling them, “I just do not want to mess anything up.”

In a follow-up email dated February 11, 2014, Dangremond excitedly notified agencies about the next round of giveaways. This was a rare opportunity, one that might not come again, he boasted, to get an MRAP with the “new car smell.” When Mennenga emailed him the next day to talk on the phone, Dangremond apologized for his inability to respond to calls, but “with 500+ MRAPs coming available my phone never stops.” (I was able to get Dangremond on the phone but he said he was directed not to speak to media and gave me a number for public affairs, which did not return my calls.)

The sheriff’s SWAT team, which planned to use the truck, is a multi-jurisdictional unit made up of 24 officers from six different local police departments. Mennenga made sure each was on board before moving forward. The University of Illinois Police Department (UIPD) had also put in a request, but deferred to the sheriff. The only problems, according to UIPD Sergeant Matt Ballinger, were maintenance and the cost to transport such a heavy vehicle, but he gave it a “yay.” UIPD was also pleased to find out the gun turrets on the top of the truck were removed. In Urbana, typically viewed as the more progressive of the two cities, SWAT team member Lt. Richard Surles responded, “Can we afford to pass this up?” His biggest concern was where to store the truck. Nobody expressed concern about how it might look to the public.

All departments must submit a justification letter before receiving an MRAP. Walsh’s letter outlines the need to replace the armored truck for their SWAT team, which was “coming to the end of its life cycle.” The annual non-personnel expenses budget for the SWAT team was approximately $20,000. The cost of a new armored car, which could run between $200,000 and $250,000, was too hefty for their current budget. They have a second truck that carries six to eight SWAT members, but it has no ballistic protected armor. They routinely coordinate with the Champaign Police Department, which maintains a separate SWAT team and has its own armored truck. There is nothing in the request about potential terrorist attacks, violent gangs, or crowd control – just a desire for a new car.

To coordinate deliveries, each state was to designate five agencies to receive MRAPs, and Champaign County was among the top five in Illinois. The first major obstacle was pinning down the weight of the enormous truck to get a quote from a transportation agency. They finally found out it weighed 49,600 pounds (an average car is around 3,000 pounds). In order to fit it under bridges, they had to verify the height of 12.5 feet. Due to the extreme size, they had to get a permit for being overweight. They also had to put the tires on a second semi truck. The total transportation costs exceeded $5,000.

Not a Hybrid

The MRAP finally arrived in Champaign County on March 22, 2014, after a two-day journey. An information sheet provides some of the specs on the truck. The BAE American General M998 MRAP has a six-cylinder turbocharged engine that puts out 450 horsepower and can travel at highway speeds. It is a six-wheel model (as opposed to a smaller four-wheel model) with all-wheel drive. The MRAP is “Not a hybrid,” according to the information sheet, and gets approximately three miles per gallon. It is valued at $733,000.

MRAPS are not to be confused with the two smaller four-wheeled, square-backed trucks blockading protesters along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson: one a Lenco BearCat and the other a standard armored personnel carrier. Neither of the two trucks was acquired through the 1033 program (although a Pentagon spokesperson has confirmed that they have supplied the St. Louis County Police Department with a plethora of other equipment, including assault rifles, helicopters, Humvees and a bomb disposal robot).

Some modifications first had to be made to Champaign’s MRAP to accommodate the V-shaped undercarriage of the truck designed to withstand mine explosions. The truck came with only three seats and an additional $2,000 had to be spent on getting more. It will now carry 10 to 12 officers, including the driver.

The truck’s odometer read 29,000 miles, but the drive train was brand new. Urbana Sgt. Jason Norton found from his research that these MRAPS had received a $6 million upgrade to replace the engine, transmission, suspension and air conditioning before the program was shut down. “It isn’t in too bad of shape,” Mennenga said in a correspondence with another one of the five Illinois agencies that received an MRAP. “One of our SWAT guys had been in the military and spent some time in one said there are a few minor things missing,” Mennenga wrote. There was a broken door handle and no controller for inflating the tires.

As part of what is euphemistically described as “demilitarization,” the MRAPs are given a new paint job to cover up the original desert beige color. Surles suggested they paint it white because it is cheaper and hides imperfections. “Also it will make the vehicle cooler (letting snipers lay on top for example).” The SWAT team has four trained snipers. “Lastly, it is the least intimidating of all the colors.” This comment is a tacit acknowledgment of the truck’s menacing appearance. Surely, the bright color is unlikely to calm the public’s fears. Asked about a $5,000 estimate for the paint job, Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly replied he was “fine with that.”

In the article that appeared in the local newspaper, Chief Deputy Allen Jones explained the truck would be used for high-risk warrants, hostage situations, and active shooters. “It can even help us get folks to where they need to go in bad weather,” he said. There is some truth to this claim. Earlier in the year, Champaign had inquired with the Northwest Regional SWAT team in Indiana about the MRAP they had received in October 2013. A commander said their MRAP had already been used to transport the victim of a hostage situation and pick up drivers stuck in a heavy snowstorm. More telling though, just “this morning” they used the MRAP “to transport 12 guys for a drug warrant.”

Another sheriff’s department in central Indiana has claimed an MRAP can protect police from IEDs planted by military veterans. Champaign’s history indicates that Walsh will more likely deploy the MRAP to prosecute the war on drugs in the African-American community. In 2007, I conducted a study of 63 SWAT raids in Champaign County finding that 87 percent of them were for drugs, the majority netting relatively small amounts. In the reports where race was indicated, 90 percent of raids were on African-American households, although blacks make up 12 percent of the county population.

Across the country, communities are rejecting these military vehicles. In 2012, UC Berkeley police were stopped from purchasing a BearCat with Homeland Security money after the chancellor declared it was “not the best choice for a university setting.” Just days before Michael Brown was killed, the Albuquerque Police Department decided to get rid of its 1033-provided MRAP due to public pressure. When political satirist John Oliver mocked Saginaw, Michigan for owning an MRAP during a Ferguson commentary on his HBO show, the sheriff announced the following day he was decommissioning the truck.

Important opposition has also emerged within Champaign-Urbana. Others also addressed the county board on August 21, 2014, about the sheriff’s MRAP. Karen Medina, an activist born and raised in Champaign-Urbana, said she didn’t want this “tank” on the streets of her hometown. “We should think about these things,” said local resident Stuart Levy, “in terms of not whether they’re cheap to acquire, but whether they’re good for our community.”

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