Mother Jones obtained more than 450 police department requests for armored tactical vehicles from the Pentagon. Did your police force request one? Browse all of them here.One year ago this week, hundreds of camouflaged officers in Ferguson, Missouri bore down on residents protesting the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.
Riot cops, their faces sometimes concealed by gas masks, fired off tear gas canisters, and as they stood on top of hulking, mine-resistant vehicles, they appeared to train their assault rifles on the crowds. On some nights, they greeted demonstrators with a storm of rubber bullets.
Images of this chaos provoked a furious debate over the billions of federal dollars that have helped local police forces amass combat style weapons, trucks, and armor. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), echoing concerns from across the political spectrum, fumed that “lawful, peaceful protesters did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants.”
Law enforcement agencies responded by stoking old fears. No community, they argued, not even the smallest one, is safe from worst-case scenarios like mass shootings, hostage situations, or terrorist attacks. The use of this military equipment has resulted in “substantial positive impact on public safety and officer safety,” Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a research group, said in a 2014 Senate hearing on police militarization. He cited hostage situations, rescue missions, and heavy-duty shootouts where the vehicles had come in useful.
But in private, police justify these same programs in radically different ways.
Mother Jones obtained more than 450 local requests, filed over two years, for what may be the most iconic piece of equipment in the debate over militarizing local police: the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP.* And an analysis of these documents reveals that in justifying their requests, very few sheriffs and police chiefs cite active shooters, hostage situations, or terrorism, as police advocates do in public.
Instead, the single most common reason agencies requested a mine-resistant vehicle was to combat drugs. Fully a quarter of the 465 requests projected using the vehicles for drug enforcement. Almost half of all departments indicated that they sit within a region designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (Nationwide, only 17 percent of counties are HIDTAs.) One out of six departments were prepared to use the vehicles to serve search or arrest warrants on individuals who had yet to be convicted of a crime. And more than half of the departments indicated they were willing to deploy armored vehicles in a broad range of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids.
By contrast, out of the total 465 requests, only 8 percent mention the possibility of a barricaded gunman. For hostage situations, the number is 7 percent, for active shooters, 6 percent. Only a handful mentioned downed officers or the possibility of terrorism.