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NY police rake in armored trucks, rifles from military

Soldiers from 74th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 303rd EOD Battalion, 8th Military Police Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, receive hands-on training as they drive the new Mine Resistant Vehicle, also called the Panther. (Staff Sgt. Taresha Hill/U.S. Army)

Batavia, a small city between Buffalo and Rochester, is home to 14,000 people, five square miles — and one 14-ton truck built to withstand IED blasts and other wartime attacks.

The village of Albion — population 6,000, 17 miles north of Batavia — has an ambush-protected military truck, too. So does Jefferson County in the North Country, Madison County in central New York and a handful of spots in the Hudson Valley.

In the last seven years, two dozen New York police departments big and small have acquired Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (or MRAPs), armored utility trucks that were originally built to protect soldiers from explosions in war zones across the globe.

The vehicles, each originally purchased for upwards of $859,000, are provided to local police departments free of charge by the U.S. military under what’s known as the 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to disperse surplus vehicles, aircraft, equipment and supplies to local or state police agencies.

Police across the state and nation say the program has helped provide them with useful tools they never would have been able to find room in the budget for otherwise.

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The program, however, has gained scrutiny from critics in recent years for its role in further militarizing local police forces, particularly when MRAPs and other military vehicles are used as a show of force to clear streets during times of civil unrest — including the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd.

“As long as police continue to arm themselves with military equipment, they’re going to approach every community as a war zone,” said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, Westchester County, who sponsors a bill to restrict police agencies’ participation in the program.

Many NY police participate in 1033 program

Then-Warren County Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree poses in front of the department’s Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, shortly after it was acquired under the military 1033 program in 2013 in Queensbury, N.Y.

More than 100 police agencies across New York have participated in the program since its inception in the mid-1990s, according to data maintained by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, which administers the program.

Among the 24 police or sheriff’s departments that have received MRAPs are New York City (which has two), Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, Steuben County, Madison County, Livingston County, Ulster County and the towns of Greece and Greenburgh.

At the time of their purchase, the MRAPs were worth a combined $16 million, according to the data.

Other equipment dispersed to New York’s state, county and local police under the program includes:

  • 254 military rifles, including 149 M16s and 104 M14s
  • 112 utility trucks, including Humvees
  • Five helicopters (one of which was later returned by State Police) and an airplane
  • 521 sets of shackles, which were sent to the Rye Police Department in Westchester County in 2019.
  • A wide variety of other equipment ranging from rescue gear to strap-cutting knives to survival blankets to laptop cases and men’s undershirts.

All told, the equipment and vehicles were worth more than $35 million at the time of their purchase.

The Defense Logistics Agency’s list of equipment provided to New York is not all-encompassing, however. It includes all major vehicles, aircraft, most weapons and night-vision equipment dispersed to New York agencies, as well as smaller pieces of equipment sent within the last year.

It does not include minor equipment sent more than a year ago, which marks when ownership is officially transferred to the local agency.

Low cost attracts police participation

Local police departments do not pay the military anything for use of the equipment, though they are expected to cover shipping costs. They’re also responsible for maintenance and the cost of operation.

For Batavia, delivery costs totaled about $1,700 when it took in a decommissioned MRAP last year. The police department paid for it with asset-forfeiture funds, according to Batavia Police Chief Shawn Heubusch.

The only other costs associated with the vehicle were upgrading the lights and stenciling, though a local businessman donated the lighting package, Heubusch said.

It is the only armored vehicle in the department’s fleet, which Heubusch called a “game-changer” for its ability to withstand rifle rounds and provide protection to officers navigating an active-shooter situation.

“It’s a vehicle you can take into a hot zone, so to speak, if there was an active shooter,” he said. “It’s also a vehicle that can ford four feet of water. We do live in a flood plane. We would use it for instance if there was a high-water rescue we needed to make. We could even use it in a blizzard.”

In central New York, Madison County took over ownership of an MRAP in 2017. The heavy-duty vehicle did not come directly from the federal government, however.

Instead, it came from the city of Rochester, which took control of the MRAP in 2014 before swapping it out for a similar armored vehicle known as a BearCat, which is more agile and better-suited for city streets, according to the Rochester Police Department.

“We used it for pretty much every barricaded-gunman situation since I’ve been in office,” Madison County Sheriff Todd Hood said, estimating that has likely been around eight times.

The armored vehicle, designed to withstand the force of a bomb, does not have any weapons attached to it, Hood said, but is used to protect SWAT team members, officers and civilians from gunfire.

“A smaller county like us, we can’t afford a $200,000 vehicle,” he said. “This is the ideal situation.”

State Police, meanwhile, have used the program to acquire plenty of heavy-duty equipment, including a helicopter used in rescue missions, including those in the Adirondacks and those during Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene.

It also acquired a six-seat King Air 200 airplane that has been used by New York’s governors on official business since 1997, including current Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It’s also used for cargo trips, according to State Police.

“Our participation in the program allows us to acquire expensive, mission critical equipment at no cost, saving money for taxpayers while enhancing the services we provide to New Yorkers and other agencies,” State Police spokesman Beau Duffy said.

Opponents want to ‘demilitarize’ the police

Hundreds of protesters silently lie in the street for eight minutes at the start of the Black Lives Still Matter protest in downtown Rochester Friday, June 5, 2020. The eight minutes marked the amount of time that George Floyd, a black Minnesota man, lay before dying with a police officer’s knee on his neck.

Activists and protesters have renewed calls to “demilitarize” police following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

The movement first picked up steam in 2014 when police deployed MRAPs and other large military vehicles to disperse crowds in Ferguson, Missouri, who were protesting the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, also an unarmed Black man.

Demilitarization supporters focus much of their criticism on the 1033 program, which critics say helped accelerate the issue of over-arming police by providing them the military equipment at no cost.

Several members of Congress have voiced their support for repealing or curtailing the program in the wake of Floyd’s death, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

In 2015, President Barack Obama issued restrictions that kept police from acquiring bayonets, grenade launchers and tracked armored vehicles through the 1033 program; President Donald Trump reversed those restrictions in 2017.

Biaggi’s state-level bill would prohibit New York police departments from acquiring armored drones, silencers, grenades and “militarized armored vehicles” — such as MRAPs — from the military’s surplus.

“When you’re using this type of equipment, especially a tank, it’s like you go out and you’re looking for an enemy instead of seeing your neighbors or people in the community that you should know and have a relationship with,” Biaggi said.

The 1033 program has been opposed by a variety of organizations in New York and beyond, including the Poor People’s Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, which maintains an online petition calling for a moratorium.

“Authorities are getting dangerous military equipment and therefore a green light to use paramilitary tactics with civilians,” the petition reads. “Authorities use the 1033 program claiming it will ‘enhance officer safety,’ but paramilitary policing puts everyone at risk.”

Cuomo pushing plan to ‘re-imagine’ policing

A surplus military vehicle, owned by Mount Pleasant police department, photographed July 8, 2020. The department has used the department of defense’s 1033 military surplus program to add vehicles once used by the military to its fleet, including Humvees and an armor-clad Dodge Power Wagon.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has acknowledged the demilitarization movement when discussing broader police reforms.

The governor has launched a plan that will require each local government with a police agency to craft a plan to reform policing in their communities. The localities have to pass the plan before April 1 or risk losing state funding.

By crafting police reform at the local level, Cuomo says he is giving each community its opportunity to have a say.

“Demilitarize the police. What does that mean?” Cuomo said June 16. “What equipment do you want to take away? What procedures do you want to take away? What is the transparent disciplinary process? Tell us how that should work.”

Biaggi, however, said the state would be better off re-imagining policing policies statewide rather than the town-by-town patchwork of Cuomo’s plan.

“The whole point of what we’re trying to get across is no one should have to worry about how policing will affect them based on who they are or where they live,” she said.

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© 2020 Observer-Dispatch