News » Features

Police Departments Are Grabbing Up Free Military Hardware

Here's how (and why) they're using it


Tabielle Holsinger was watching the news on television the morning of Nov. 7, 2013. She said it was part of her morning routine--something she did just before taking a shower. Her fiance, Joshua Finch, had left the house to drop off their two children at YMCA daycare programs. That's when she heard the sirens.

"I was watching Democracy Now in my house, and Josh took the kids to school. He did that every day. It was approximately 9:20 [a.m.]. All of a sudden, I'm hearing honks. A tank was coming down the street with fire engines and police cars. A huge parade of about 10 vehicles. It just drives up here, right in front," said Holsinger, pointing to the gravel driveway facing her kitchen.

The "tank"--actually a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP)--parked directly in front of Holsinger's kitchen window, cracking a concrete slab that was part of a walkway leading to her front door. Boise Police officers entered her home and a tool shed on her property. They were there to serve a high-risk arrest warrant for Finch, who was under suspicion of kidnapping--the claims turned out to be unfounded--but also after receiving reports that he had been building bombs.

In an unfinished section of the house's basement, they found about 150 pounds of explosives that Finch had built in the tool shed and hidden from his family. But Finch wasn't home at the time of the arrest, and when the MRAP rolled into her driveway, Holsinger thought the hulking vehicle, cruisers and fire trucks were for her.

"I felt like they were coming after me. They had to make a big scene to me. I was under arrest and they were going to shoot me with the MRAP," she said, though BPD's MRAP is not armed.

Photos of the incident taken by BPD and posted online show the MRAP stationed between the street and Finch's home. Another photo shows the vehicle positioned in an alley between the shed where Finch had been preparing explosives and a neighbor's nearby house. The MRAP had startled Holsinger, but the photos of the scene show that the vehicle was acting as a blast barrier between Finch's home and adjacent property--a use that is consistent with deployment guidelines set by the police department. Specifically, policy dictates the MRAP can only be used in a defensive way and in response to an incident involving firearms or explosives. It is not to be deployed for crowd control, but it has been used in neighborhoods. BPD's stated policy is that the vehicle's purpose is to defend the "Three P's"--people, property and police--and never to harm them.

But Idaho is a patchwork of police agencies with varying quantities of military materiel, repurposed under a Department of Defense program known as 1033, and perhaps more significant are the differing philosophies and protocols regarding its use. It is part of a broader conversation about the balance between protecting police officers and the communities they serve.

A Tale of Two MRAPS

At rest in City Hall West's parking lot at a show-and-tell Aug. 26, the Boise Police Department's MRAP--the same one that rolled up to Holsinger's home--looked like a monolith. Its driver-side door, which weighs about 200 pounds, was ajar so reporters could get a glimpse inside. So was the back hatch, which revealed the 18-ton vehicle's cavernous interior, retrofitted with a gurney rack and a box of emergency medical supplies. There was other hardware on display: a bomb disposal robot, the SWAT team's armored REVA transport van. But the MRAP, at more than 10 feet tall and with 2-inch-thick bulletproof armor, was the main attraction.

The display was an act of transparency amid controversy over the increasing amount of military surplus finding its way into the hands of police departments across the country. Members of BPD's SWAT team and Chief Mike Masterson stood nearby, explaining the equipment and how it is used in police operations. Masterson, who is retiring from the force in January 2015, told Boise Weekly that his department had "to do a better job" explaining to the public why BPD has such materiel and under what conditions it will be deployed.

"It's a mystery to the public until [MRAPs] are rolled out one day. And they're rolled out by another police department that isn't consistent with the way we use it. And thus the controversy," he said.

Masterson was alluding to protests in Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 19-year-old African-American man suspected of shoplifting, touching off more than two weeks of widespread demonstrations that police confronted with MRAPs, semi-automatic rifles, sniper teams, chemical anti-riot gear and rubber bullets.

The clashes between police and citizens made the St. Louis, Mo., suburb look like a military occupation, leaving the public wondering what place that kind of gear has in the hands of hometown police departments. BPD put its hardware on display to explain how and why it's used, and allay fears that military surplus might be used offensively against Boiseans.

"You're not going to see it at crowds, managing crowds," Masterson said. "You're not going to see it at Treefort. It's not even appropriate for [MRAPs] to be at these kinds of events."

With its bulk and beige paint job, the MRAP's presence alone is enough to intimidate suspects, and that's part of the reason why the MRAP is exclusively deployed during high-risk, defensive situations. So far, BPD has used its MRAP twice since its acquisition in late 2013--once, when serving the warrant to Finch, and later to provide a barrier between the public and a man who'd barricaded himself in his home with a cache of rifles.

Masterson told BW that he's uncomfortable with other, offensive uses of similar armored transport vehicles.

"I think it raises all sorts of concerns about how the police are policing communities," he said.

To help ensure the MRAP is used responsibly, it can only be deployed with the approval of multiple levels of the BPD chain of command. When an officer makes a request to use the MRAP, that request is negotiated between the acting incident commander and SWAT command. If its use is authorized, a team under SWAT command gets the keys.

BPD's policy toward its heavily armored vehicle has been one of restraint, but some departments' guidelines triggering the use of that same equipment are more flexible. That includes the Caldwell Police Department, which most recently deployed its MRAP on Aug. 12 to serve a high-risk warrant to 26-year-old Fabian Salinas for felony charges including aggravated battery, assault on a police officer, felony eluding, burglary and felony drug possession. Caldwell police said that Salinas had tried to hit an officer with his car on Aug. 11 while evading capture. After receiving word that Salinas would be in his girlfriend's home the next day--and that he might be armed--CPD deployed its MRAP to a Caldwell neighborhood where the suspect was thought to be hiding.

"We knew there was a high probability for violence, and we knew that he was armed. Those factors reached the category in which our SWAT team was needed," said Caldwell Police Chief Chris Allgood, who was at the scene.

After searching the home for hours, CPD SWAT determined that Salinas had once again eluded capture.

But the incident is reflective of the CPD's policies governing the use of its MRAP. The vehicle is deployed at the behest of CPD SWAT, which has demonstrated that it will use it to serve high-risk warrants--in police parlance, an "offensive" use of the MRAP.

"The conditions [under which the MRAP is deployed] are very similar to the conditions that we would deploy our SWAT team, which are high-risk situations in which we're facing an armed person, where that person is due to be arrested. It's all based on how our SWAT team responds," Allgood said.

Prior to receiving its MRAP, CPD had used a repurposed moving van as its SWAT vehicle. Unarmored, showing its age and on loan from the Caldwell Fire Department, the van needed to be replaced, Allgood said.

Before fall 2013, BPD's SWAT team was in a similar predicament. It was using a white Chevrolet van and swathing it in ballistic blankets to protect the officers inside; but the arrival of new technology has precipitated differences between the two departments' rationales for deployment, and offensive deployment worries BPD Chief Masterson.

"The fact that it's attached to the military, I understand the controversy," he said. "The military uses it the same way we do, to protect their occupants. I think they're seen as an offensive weapon, when in fact they're a defensive tool."

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson on the department's heavy military gear: "You're not going to see it at Treefort." - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson on the department's heavy military gear: "You're not going to see it at Treefort."

Welcome to the Gun Show

Police departments acquire free military hardware through the Department of Defense's 1033 Program, which distributes everything from body armor and service pistols to semi-automatic assault rifles and MRAPs. The program was established by the National Defense Authorization Act in 1997. Since then, it has aided in the transfer of more than $5.1 billion in property to more than 8,000 state and local police agencies. In 2013, it transferred nearly $450 million in materiel nationwide.

The gear shepherded through the 1033 program includes M-1911 .45-caliber pistols, AR-15 assault rifles, helicopters and planes, 10- to 12-mpg SWAT vans and MRAPs. Armored vehicles, like those in Ada and Canyon counties, are distributed to police agencies based on the number of vehicles available, the date they're requested, whether the requesting agency is in a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and the size of the area a given vehicle will serve.

Requests for repurposed military equipment paint some Idaho communities in extreme colors. While BYU-Idaho classes are in session, the rural East Idaho town of Rexburg has a population of about 30,000, but according to a 2013 application filed by the Rexburg Police Department, and obtained by Boise Weekly through a Freedom of Information Act request, "this area will be designated with the HIDTA status in the near future." (As of September 2014, HIDTA status still hasn't been applied to Rexburg.)

Bingham County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, requested an MRAP in 2013 to service a seven-county tactical team, covering 10,155 square miles. The Washington County Sheriff's Office, which also requested an MRAP in 2013, described the Brownlee Dam on the Snake River as a "high terror risk dam located in our county." None of the three agencies have, as yet, received their requested MRAPs.

BPD has been a prolific beneficiary of the 1033 Program, and though it has received an MRAP, it has also received materiel of a more benign nature. Between the inception of the 1033 Program and the present, the department has received 196 helmets, five pairs of binoculars, a telescope, a protective bomb suit, 30 gas mask filters, two sets of night vision goggles, 40 storage chests, 15 chemical suits and five flak jackets. Twelve AR-15 assault rifles were also granted to BPD, which the department has converted to semi-automatic weapons and uses them exclusively for training. Caldwell has its own MRAP and the Ada County Sheriff has a REVA SWAT vehicle, all obtained through the 1033 Program.


BPD's REVA, which was parked in the City Hall West parking lot near the MRAP on Aug. 26, looked almost modest by comparison. The SWAT truck has less armor than its larger counterpart and gets much better gas mileage, but it's still intimidating with its all-black paint job. According to BPD Deputy Chief Scott Mulcahy, the intimidation factor of the MRAP and SWAT truck are not accidents.

"The visual presence of this vehicle is a level of force," he said. "You see this rolling down your street and you're going to wonder what's up."

For police, the show of force is another tool in the law enforcement toolbox. For the public, it is a symbol, and depending on how police interact with the public they serve, the show of force can be a symbol of law and order, or of paramilitary excess. Concern over police militarization is often code for concern about the role police play in communities.

"It can ... speak to underlying tensions that have relatively little to do with military technology itself," said Dr. Joseph De Angelis, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Idaho, whose area of research is public perceptions of police.

When the media or the public talk about the dangers of police militarization, De Angelis said, that discussion is sidestepping deeper rifts between the public and police--often involving race or class. The Missouri attorney general reported in 2013 that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans, who make up two-thirds of Ferguson residents, as they were to arrest whites. The Washington Post reports that despite that community's racial gap, three of Ferguson's 53 police officers are black. Its mayor, police chief and most of the members of its city council are white.

"The focus on militarization glosses over some of the deeper issues that local jurisdictions face. To focus on the expansion of MRAPs and the distribution of assault rifles to small communities is potentially concerning, but if the goal is to get at what's creating conflict between local communities and police departments, it's usually related to other kinds of underlying tensions," De Angelis said.

Questions of whether the police abuse their power or are inappropriately armed to safeguard communities are as old as the idea of municipal law enforcement. But many of those questions allude to an age-old trade-off between keeping the public safe from police abuse and concern for the safety of police officers whose jobs require them to resolve potentially life-threatening situations. According to De Angelis, using technology to confront increasingly well-armed suspects is a common way to improve on-the-job police safety, but it's up to police to best represent themselves in their service areas.

"It's clear that forms of weaponry that exist on the streets have been changing over the last 20 years. There's no doubt that citizens have much more sophisticated forms of firearms. The police claim that conditions on the street are more dangerous, and it's a claim that we have to take reasonably seriously. But in the end it comes down to how they use that technology," he said.

Misuse of repurposed military equipment comes in a variety of forms. There's indiscriminate use of military materiel: In Ferguson, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. Earlier this year, an officer tossed a flashbang grenade into the crib of an Atlanta-area toddler, who suffered severe burns. But there's also "mission creep," in which military-style units like SWAT teams are deployed to non-high-risk situations.

While some police departments write policies giving broad authority to roll out military equipment in a variety of situations, others are more strict, tightly controlling when and how tactical units and tech are used. And there's a correlation between how flexible those policies are and how police departments are likely to be perceived by the public.

"When you don't have the parameters outlined, then you're likely to have that technology used in unanticipated and less effective ways. Then you certainly have a chance that police can respond to a critical incident in a less-than-optimal way," De Angelis said.

The parameters outlined by the BPD are "headed in the right direction," said ACLU-Idaho Interim Executive Director Leo Morales, but more is needed to ensure that someone is watching the watchmen.

"Is there an opportunity for the community to provide input? Who provides oversight? Perhaps it could be better," he said.

The ACLU has been concerned with police militarization since long before events in Ferguson splashed images of MRAPs and grenade launchers into the news cycle. In June, it released War Comes Home, an examination of military hardware from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan making their way into the hands of police departments. Specifically, the report looked at the targets of SWAT raids and the effect these trends have on trust in the people who are supposed to be protecting the public's safety. It concluded that nationwide, between 2011 and 2012, 62 percent of SWAT deployments were drug searches. Meanwhile, 500 law enforcement agencies have received MRAPs.

Increasingly, police are being trained in military-style tactics instead of community policing, and so-called no-knock raids are becoming more common. Police agencies say tactics and weaponry are necessary to protect officers in the line of duty, but for Morales, militarized police forces are being deployed in situations where SWAT-style tactics are unnecessary.

"To use these kinds of weapons requires different training. The military's trained for a different purpose. We potentially undercut the training of local police and building trust in communities," he said.

According to Morales, there are lessons to be learned from high-profile instances in which police militarization goes wrong--lessons about social challenges that come to the fore when police clash with the public in a changing America.

Without oversight of police militarization, Morales said, any community could be the next Ferguson.

"The heavy militarization of law enforcement is not going to work in any community. There's also an attempt by law enforcement to suppress the media there," Morales said.

Balancing Act

BPD's reactive use of heavy military hardware is part of Masterson's broader policing strategy. Maintaining law and order, he has said, is about low-level, community policing, and that means dialogue and maintaining a general law enforcement presence in Boise. MRAPs, AR-15 assault rifles and over-the-uniform body armor aren't part of that dialogue, he said.

"I think one of the lessons that I learned long ago is that, yes, there should be police presence in the daytime, but not wearing hard gear. We should interact with the crowds. It appears that there is a strong faith-based community where you should be bringing advocates into the solution. Maybe the first line between the police and protesters is not an empty space. Maybe it's community leaders," Masterson said.

This isn't new turf for the BPD chief, who went before a Boise church congregation to voice his opposition to the so-called guns-on-campus bill when it was being considered in the 2014 Idaho legislative session. The bill was later signed into law despite Masterson's opposition. Nevertheless, it was a chance for the public to interact with the police in a nonconfrontational capacity. On the other end of the confrontation spectrum is military hardware, and Masterson told Boise Weekly that the materiel his department has received through the 1033 Program is part of not being naive about the possibility of disaster striking the Treasure Valley.

"Take a look at Boise and say it can't happen here. Take a look at the guy with 200 pounds of bomb-making material. To say it won't happen here? We do have a lot of people who hate government. You can't guarantee that nothing will happen," he said.

It's a balancing act that has high stakes for any community, and the public can get confused about the role police play when they talk about community policing on one hand, and their eagerness to acquire semi-automatic weapons and armored vehicles on the other.

"It's not uncommon for police officers to be quite aware of the paramilitary nature of police. Now, when it comes to talking publicly, public information officers are likely to play down the paramilitary features of their organizations because it can conflict with other messages they're trying to convey to the public," De Angelis said.

In an age when images of police militarization gone awry are a regular feature of front pages and television news, Masterson has so far elected to be sparing with the use of technology the department has acquired from the Department of Defense, but he's under no illusions about what kind of police department he's running.

"Look, we're paramilitary. I wear a uniform. I'm the most visible form of government ... and so are my 200 colleagues on the police force. What do you want as an option? Do you want us dressed in civilian clothes with name tags. Do you want police to drive unmarked squad cars and hide their guns? I think that's the very worst scenario we could have," he said. "We are paramilitary."