Coming soon to your local sheriff: 18-ton, armor-protected military fighting vehicles with gun turrets and bulletproof glass that were once the U.S. answer to roadside bombs during the Iraq war.
The hulking vehicles, built for about $500,000 each at the height of the war, are among the biggest pieces of equipment that the Defense Department is giving to law enforcement agencies under a national military surplus program.
For police and sheriff’s departments, which have scooped up 165 of the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPS, since they became available this summer, the price and the ability to deliver shock and awe while serving warrants or dealing with hostage standoffs was just too good to pass up.
“It’s armored. It’s heavy. It’s intimidating. And it’s free,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, among five county sheriff’s departments and three other police agencies in New York that have taken delivery of an MRAP.
But the trucks have limits. They are too big to travel on some bridges and roads and have a tendency to be tippy on uneven ground. And then there’s some cost of retrofitting them for civilian use and fueling the 36,000-pound behemoths that get about 5 miles to the gallon.
The American Civil Liberties Union is criticizing what it sees as the increasing militarization of the nation’s police. ACLU affiliates have been collecting 2012 records to determine the extent of military hardware and tactics acquired by police, planning to issue a report early next year.
“One of our concerns with this is it has a tendency to escalate violence,” said ACLU Center for Justice senior counsel Kara Dansky.
An Associated Press investigation of the Defense Department military surplus program this year found that a disproportionate share of the $4.2 billion worth of property distributed since 1990 — everything from blankets to bayonets and Humvees — has been obtained by police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
After the initial 165 of the MRAP trucks were distributed this year, military officials say police have requests in for 731 more, but none are available.
Police departments statewide have also acquired almost 150 other trucks and Humvees, a dozen of them armored, over the past two years.