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Police Departments Are Grabbing Up Free Military Hardware

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

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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."