On a Wednesday morning in 2017, Benbrook police officers went to a home on Greenview Court to arrest a 28-year-old man on a felony warrant.
He wouldn’t come outside. The department sent its SWAT team and a negotiator, along with its military-issued, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.
The SWAT team negotiated with the man for several hours. At one point, he fired several rounds from a rifle at police officers, police said at the time. No one was injured.
That was the only time Benbrook police have used the vehicle since the department received it for free through a federal program in 2014.
Benbrook is one of four police departments in Tarrant County that have one of those vehicles. There are 12 vehicles total in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The vehicles are most often used in parades and fairs, but when it comes to criminal investigations, they’re normally brought out for situations like the one in Benbrook, according to records obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram through open records requests.
A federal program known as the 1033, or Law Enforcement Support Office, provides law enforcement agencies with military surplus items for free, minus the cost of upkeep. Tarrant County agencies have received more than $4.3 million in items in the last 20 years, from mine-resistant vehicles to rifles and coffee makers.
The program has been heavily criticized since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown. Police roamed the streets in armored vehicles while carrying rifles during protests. Similar images poured out of Minneapolis at the end of May. Demands to demilitarize the police have come to the forefront in the larger topic of police reform after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer two months ago.
The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that neighborhoods are not war zones, and police shouldn’t have equipment that treats them as such.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and the co-director of the Social Justice Institute, said police departments that want to strengthen their relationships with the communities they serve cannot do so while also responding to calls with military gear.
“The federal government has been doing this for several decades and it is consistent with the approach of thinking about an American government being at war with its own citizens,” she said. “We think about the war on crime and the war on drugs, having military grade weapons at their disposal really fits into these notions of war. The Americans on the street are not enemy combatants.”
In Ellis County, Waxahachie police SWAT commander Mike Lewis says the department’s mine-resistant, ambush-protected tool is essential to keep officers safe when they serve felony warrants on suspects wanted for violent crimes. He also said the department has used its vehicle during high-water rescues, because the fire department isn’t equipped to do the same.
Fort Worth and Arlington police don’t participate in the federal program and said they don’t have military surplus items.
The Star-Telegram asked departments how often they have used their mine-resistant vehicles and how they have been used. The newspaper received data back from the Mansfield, Southlake, Benbook, Cleburne, Allen and Waxahachie police departments and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Bedford police and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said they don’t keep track of how often their mine-resistant vehicles are used.
Every department except Southlake and Allen sent the newspaper photos of the vehicles. Lawyers for Southlake sent the attorney general a letter that argued releasing photos would interfere with their investigations and put people at an advantage when confronted by police, but a spokesperson later said there was a miscommunication and that the vehicle is often photographed in social media posts, which were found by the Star-Telegram.
The letter sent to the attorney general by Allen attorneys was redacted. The attorney general hasn’t responded to either letter.
The Little Elm Police Department and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to the newspaper’s request at the time of publication.
In Mansfield, police have used the vehicle 20 times since the department received it in 2014. Nine of those times involved a barricaded person. One was a kidnapping, one was to assist another department and nine were for community events such as parades and fairs.
Southlake is part of the North Tarrant Regional SWAT team. Its vehicle was used in 2017 to respond to a bomb threat in Trophy Club. The department has used it four other times since 2016, all involving people who barricaded themselves in their homes, according to records.
Cleburne police have used its vehicle four times. Allen police sent the newspaper a log showing that the vehicle has been driven 41 times since 2018, mostly to tours, demos, community events and training.
The Duncanville Police Department received its vehicle in 2014 and said it is referred to as a “rescue truck,” which would be used if officers responded to an active shooter or call of a barricaded person. It has been used seven times — six times for someone who had barricaded himself inside a building or car and once when officers served a homicide arrest warrant.
Lewis, the SWAT commander of the Waxahachie Police Department, said the LESO program is “easily misunderstood” and the items received are not used in the same way soldiers use them. The department painted its vehilce blue and added “police” to the front to remove its military ties, Lewis said.
He said the department used its vehicle once when a person was shooting at them.
“It provides the best level of coverage for officers,” he said.
Other ways to combat crime
Instead of distributing billions of dollars worth of military gear to police departments, Hardaway, the professor, argues the government should redirect funding to programs and services that address the root causes of crime.
“You hear communities say, ‘We’re starved of all sorts of resources,’ whether it be food insecurity, affordable housing and education, and if the federal government wants to provide resources that can benefit the community and safety goals of the community, that’s a place that this money can be funneled,” she said.
Removing the level of perceived force by eliminating military gear can help strengthen community and police relationships, she said.
“It’s sort of a hypocritical approach to policing that has led to all of the conflicts that we see largely in communities of color,” she said. “They’re treated like criminals or presumed to be enemy combatants … I think we’ve seen a lot of that on the streets as police officers around the country violated individual rights who were protesting George Floyd.”
Asked if the vehicle was used during Black Lives Matter protests in Waxahachie, Lewis said no.
“Our job is to protect the people’s right to protest and provide them an escort,” he said. “But we also have to enforce the rule of law if it turns into a riot. The right to peacefully protest is protected … but we wouldn’t want to use it as a show of force if there’s not a violent riot.”
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