George Myers and Cody Neusenschwander, Kokomo Tribune
KOKOMO – The MRAP – or mine-resistant ambush protected – vehicle drove slowly through the street, an officer in camouflage pants and an Army green shirt walking beside it, a sun-glassed middle-aged man surveying the surroundings through its open top.
On either side of the street were spectators marveling at the tan and brown armored vehicle, with sleek vents positioned on both sides and a rear boarding door open for entry.
But printed on the MRAP wasn’t a military logo. Instead, it read: “SHERIFF.” The vehicle wasn’t patrolling in Afghanistan or Iraq; it was being shown off in front of the Howard County Courthouse at this summer’s Haynes Apperson Festival.
The MRAP, built initially for combat warfare, is without doubt the Howard County Sheriff’s Department’s most formidable resource, a multi-purpose vehicle acquired last winter that officials say can be used for everything from a hostage situation to flood rescue.
However, the MRAP also sits at the center of a well-documented dilemma within law enforcement circles. At a time when the issue of police militarization has created a rift between police agencies and certain segments of the population, the use of military surplus equipment raises multiple questions.
Does the MRAP, along with other military parallels utilized by local law enforcement, establish an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality? Does it make the community policing approach embraced by local officials that much more difficult?
Or is the MRAP, weighing 21 tons, a necessary and helpful device for law enforcement, simply something that can diffuse or end the most dangerous of situations?
Just ‘another tool’
Prior to acquiring the MRAP this past winter, Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers said it was long a goal of his to obtain an armored vehicle for the department, a tool that can be implemented in myriad situations.
Though the MRAP hasn't yet been deployed on any calls, Rogers called training a work-in-progress. Rogers said that on Thursday training involved driving the vehicle through different types of terrain, including soft terrain which was not intended for such a heavy machine.
That sort of training, said Rogers, helps operators know what to do in case it were to get stuck, and how to maneuver on different terrains. Additionally, he noted that training involves trying to load and unload personnel quickly and fluidly.
People with military experience have assisted with the training.
Rogers noted that the county department had on occasion previously used the Kokomo Police Department’s armored vehicle, which is utilized for SWAT calls and was constructed for law enforcement use.
He specifically noted one instance that occurred years ago in Tipton County, a situation that contributed to his desire for a more powerful resource.
Rogers said officers were assisting Tipton County law enforcement agencies in response to a suspect firing rounds into neighboring houses with a high-powered weapon. After evacuating civilians from the area, Rogers said, they realized there was no “reasonable” way to approach the shooter without being exposed to extreme danger.
Officials on the scene ended up calling KPD, and requested use of their armored vehicle as a shield while approaching the house. Rogers recalls seeing the coffee in his cup ripple as the vehicle approached his position.
Using KPD’s armored vehicle, they approached the house and administered tear gas. The suspect, Rogers said, ended up taking his own life.
“I kind of made a vow to myself – to the people here. I said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a vehicle that we can have to use like that,’” said Rogers.
Ultimately, Rogers decided to acquire a piece of equipment that he says was the most cost-effective option, but which has for years generated controversy and concern from law enforcement watchdogs who worry about the militarization of police agencies.
The MRAP on display at the Haynes Apperson Festival and at other community events wasn’t designed for civilian or law enforcement use, but instead was built as a military tool meant to withstand heavy combat environments, specifically explosions and ambushes.
But because law-enforcement-designated armored vehicles are a steep investment, Rogers felt the military-grade vehicle best served his department’s needs, specifically related to versatility and officer safety.
The U.S. Department of Reutilization and Marketing Office is responsible for “disseminating surplus federal property,” explained Rogers, and Howard County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Jerry Asher said he prepared paperwork through the Law Enforcement Support Office in Indianapolis, declaring why they felt they needed the vehicle and providing statistics about the department.
That office, he said, assists law enforcement agencies in obtaining military surplus gear as an alternative to scrapping the expensive equipment.
Besides, said Rogers, taxpayers have already paid around $700,000 for the vehicle for its military use. Reutilizing it seemed the more appropriate route than allowing it to be discarded, and obtaining it through these means didn’t require a penny from the county budget.
When they obtained the MRAP, it was refurbished using funds through the Howard County Prosecutor’s law enforcement fund.
The fund, explained Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann, is built up with cash, vehicles and other personal properties forfeited following an arrest. Following the proper forfeiture process, cash is deposited in the fund, and property is auctioned off.
There’re no particular criteria for allocation of money out of the fund, McCann said, but the agency needs to explain how the money will be put to good use. A lot of the time, it’s used for something that isn’t designated on the agency’s budget.
“It’s a real benefit for our office to have that, and also a benefit to law enforcement because there’s equipment that needs to be replaced, computers, software, etc., that, depending on what agency it is, does not have the funds to obtain,” said McCann.
As for the MRAP, McCann said it wasn’t a hard decision to give them some financial backing through the law enforcement fund. It was a benefit to the department and not a significant amount of money to make the needed renovations, which included replacing bullet-proof glass, paint and some minor mechanical touch-ups.
It requires specific training to operate, said Rogers, to prepare operators for what Asher described as something similar to driving a dump truck. It’s a big, all-wheel drive vehicle that takes a wider radius to make turns. Cameras give the driver a view of its blind spots.
A winch on the front can move large pieces of debris, a function Rogers pointed out could have been of use during cleanup and rescue efforts following the Aug. 24 tornadoes. It's outfitted to supply electricity during similar emergency situations.
Its immense weight could also make it useful for rescue efforts, Asher said, noting a time they needed to use a fire truck to drive into the Wildcat Creek while performing a rescue.
And, of course, it could provide valuable, potentially life-saving cover for officers and civilians during an armed confrontation.
Rogers described an instance in another county where an armed man threatening suicide surrendered to officers without a fight after seeing an armored vehicle approaching.
“It’s one of those last resort kind of things … if we have any pre-knowledge, if we’re going up against that person that we know is heavily armed and we know it, we’re going to take that vehicle with us when we go,” Rogers said.
Specifically, he cited the shooting last year that took the life of Howard County Deputy Carl Koontz as an example. If there was reason to believe that Evan Dorsey, the shooter, was armed, Rogers said it would have been a SWAT operation, one that easily could have implemented the MRAP.
The MRAP pays homage to Koontz, said Asher, with a license plate bearing his badge number: 34-76. It took special effort to obtain that specific number, he said.
“I feel special about it, and I hope everyone else does as well,” Asher said.
Ultimately, for Rogers and Asher, it’s another tool for the department to make the community a safer place, something at the ready if the need arises.
An overzealous decision?
For years, there have been worries across the United States that police departments, large and small, rural and urban, have become overly militarized.
A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2014 – around the time military surplus equipment was at the height of its controversy – titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” stated that police agencies and the government have partnered to create a dangerous policing environment.
“Policing – particularly through the use of paramilitary teams – in the United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield,” reads the report.
Around the same time, Pete Kraska, a professor in Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies and an author of seven books, including “Militarizing The American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and Police,” told the Indianapolis Star that military equipment meant to increase officer safety can sometimes put criminals and police alike in more danger.
"The problem with that is, it's a real slippery slope and it can become unreasonable," said Kraska, noting that the ownership of an MRAP can sometimes lead to increased SWAT-like deployments. "A traffic stop is extremely dangerous for the police. In a democratic society, though, we wouldn't want to see those traffic stops or even 25 percent of those traffic stops handled by a SWAT team.
"If what you mean by being cautious (to protect officers) is increasingly militarize, that doesn't necessarily result in safe outcomes. In fact, it can escalate risky situations instead of deescalate them."
In an interview, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said his administration and KPD officials have attempted to establish a philosophy of community policing.
In tune with cultivating that image, Goodnight believes the use of certain vehicles can create a barrier between the public and those hired to protect them.
“I’ve read enough about this – I don’t think it’s a good idea to have the big SUV-type vehicles,” he said. “Especially after Ferguson, a lot of publications wrote stories about that. There were numerous articles, periodicals and position papers written that said that sends a message of confrontation, and we want our officers to be first and foremost public servants.”
“It obviously raises questions,” added Goodnight later about police agencies utilizing military surplus equipment. “There’s enough written about it, I know there’s some scrutiny attached to it.”
The KPD's SWAT unit has at times, however, also faced questions.
One such incident took place when the SWAT team was deployed to the 1400 block of North Lafountain Street on April 24, where a skinny 80-year-old man, wearing only a long gray T-shirt extending to the middle of his thighs, was encountered in the front yard.
The SWAT unit was there in response to a call from a 29-year-old Kokomo woman who said she was confined and raped at gunpoint within the home. At the scene, officers arrested William T. Graham, 80, and a second resident, without incident.
To some, the pictures give off a feel of overkill, but city officials say the report of a weapon and the violent hostage-taking element of the case motivated the SWAT deployment. Kokomo Police Department Capt. Tonda Cockrell said SWAT decisions are always based on "safety of life."
Nonetheless, law enforcement and city administration officials held a meeting after the April 24 response to “understand the factors that lead to SWAT being deployed,” confirmed Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp.
If nothing else, the case and subsequent staff meeting demonstrate the fine line between ensuring officer safety and police overzealousness, and the split-second decision-making that can determine an efficient law enforcement operation or a troublesome photo-op.
And to avoid a perception of overzealousness, Goodnight said that the city attempts to keep its SWAT truck stored away, out of public view, as much as possible.
He did acknowledge, however, the need to have armored vehicles “at your disposal” and credited the sheriff’s department for not using the MRAP in everyday policing situations.
Rogers displayed a similar concern about public perception, explaining that the MRAP was painted Howard County Sheriff’s Department colors – it was originally black – to appear less “sinister.”
It ‘has happened here’
Rogers is also well aware of controversy surrounding law enforcement’s use of military surplus, but maintained the stance that the MRAP is a tool that can serve many uses outside of offensive purposes.
“And some of our critics, again we live in a free society where people can say anything they want to, some people look at this thing and say ‘oh my gosh, the police have a tank.’ Well, it’s not a tank, it’s an armored vehicle to protect us, and in turn protect the community. It’s not an offensive weapon … it’s a protective devise, it’s just kind of a portable wall that you can carry with you,” he said.
While noting the purposeful step to paint it sheriff’s department colors, Rogers said he wanted to present it to the community during the Haynes Apperson Festival so people are aware it’s out there.
“It’s not something sinister,” he said, adding he didn’t set out for a military surplus, but it was the most cost effective option on the table, while hunting down an armored vehicle.
Asher maintained the same viewpoint, saying that the versatility of the vehicle beyond armed conflict makes it a valuable asset. Rogers pointed out it would also be available to other area agencies.
However, one question that begs being asked: has Howard County become dangerous enough that it now requires a sheriff’s department equipped with a military vehicle?
“No, Howard County is not necessarily as bad as some places in the United States, but when you look back at our history, about anything that’s happened anywhere else has happened here. I mean, people forget we had a guy walk into our courthouse and detonate a bomb,” Rogers said.
“We’ve had an officer now killed in the line of duty. Kokomo has had officers wounded and shot over the years,” he added, noting that he believes Howard County is a good place to live.
He also said it’s his responsibility to maintain its safety, and consider its future. And having the MRAP around if it’s needed is a comfort, he said.
To make the community more comfortable with the idea, social media posts announced that the department has the MRAP, and specified it didn’t cost the county anything. It has shown up at community events. They want it to be recognizable, Rogers said, but at the same time, he also noted that they aren’t planning on making the MRAP a typical sight out on the roads.
“You’re not going to see a guy using it to patrol with, it’s a special utility vehicle that has some features that can really help us in some situations other than an armed conflict,” he said.
Staying on the topic of controversy surrounding law enforcement and military gear, Rogers maintains that while debate may persist, his stance is that the MRAP is a valuable tool that can very well serve a positive purpose.
“But that’s just the ongoing debate about American law enforcement. That’s just going to be out there. Some people are going to be concerned about that,” he said, and added later, “Make no bones about it, my commitment is to the safety of this community and the people who work here.”