Earlier this summer, the News-Gazette ran a story that Sheriff Dan Walsh had acquired a Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicle. Titled “Something Big Just Arrived,” the article touted the benefits of the new truck. Yet in the wake of Ferguson, a growing number of people are raising questions about police militarization in our city. Why does Champaign-Urbana, a small Midwestern college town, need such over-sized military hardware?
Human rights scholar and Public i writer Belden Fields recently addressed the Champaign County Board about how, “a kind of we-them mentality has developed which requires overwhelming force in order to subject people to the discipline of law.” He called on the Sheriff to scrap the MRAP.
From Warfighter to Crimefighter
These MRAP (pronounced “em-rap”) trucks are being distributed through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which has as its motto “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” The program was developed in the 1990s at the height of the gang scare to provide police with “excess” military equipment such as semiautomatic rifles, helicopters, bullet proof helmets and vests. In Ferguson we witnessed police dressed in camouflage and body armor aiming M-16 rifles at protesters.
During the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there were high numbers of US soldiers in Hummers being killed by roadside bombs. In response, Congress approved the purchase of MRAPs that could withstand such blasts. These massive machines can weigh up to 25 tons due to their heavy armor plating. As troops have been scaled back in Iraq and Afghanistan, MRAPs are being offloaded to local police departments. They are given away by the 1033 Program free of charge if departments can cover transportation.
After finding out about our Sheriff’s MRAP, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and received a couple hundred pages of documents. What follows is a behind-the-scenes look at how this program is being carried out at the local level.
AWESOME MRAP Opportunity
On June 10, 2013, the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office received an email from Greg Dangremond of the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) in Battle Creek, Michigan announcing the “great news” that they were “just a few days away from allocating over 500 MRAPs!”
Sheriff Walsh sent the query to Lieutenant Brian Mennenga, a commander of the SWAT team, who responded yes, they were “definitely still interested.” The SWAT team needed a replacement for their “aging” 1986 Brinks armored truck. But this round they were passed up.
In November 2013, Champaign received an email from Illinois LESO State Coordinator Curtis Howard who said he recently heard about what Dangremond called an “AWESOME MRAP Opportunity.” There were “100s” of Caiman MRAPs available “in as good or better condition than the MRAPs already allocated!” The catch was, they were located 1,000 miles away in Sealy, Texas where BAE Systems, the British-based defense contractor, was closing its plant.
Dangremond sent a follow-up email on February 11, 2014 about the opportunity to get an MRAP with the “new car smell.” When Mennenga emailed him the next day to talk on the phone, Dangremond apologized for his inability to respond to calls, but “with 500+ MRAPs coming available my phone never stops.”
The Sheriff’s SWAT team, which planned to use the truck, is a multi-jurisdictional unit made up of 24 officers from six different local police departments. Mennenga made sure each was on board before moving forward. The University of Illinois Police Department (UIPD) had also put in a request, but deferred to the Sheriff. The only problems, according to UIPD Sergeant Matt Ballinger, were maintenance and the cost to transport such a heavy vehicle, but he gave it a “yay.” In Urbana, typically viewed as the more progressive of the two cities, SWAT team member Lieutenant Richard Surles responded, “Can we afford to pass this up?” Nobody expressed concern about how it might look to the public.
All departments must submit a justification letter before receiving an MRAP. Sheriff Walsh’s letter outlines the need to replace the SWAT team’s armored truck which was “coming to the end of its life cycle.” The cost of a new armored car was prohibitive for their current budget. They have a second truck that carries 6-8 SWAT members, but it has no ballistic protected armor. There is nothing about potential terrorist attacks, violent gangs, or crowd control, just a desire for a new car.
The first major obstacle was pinning down the weight of the enormous truck to get a quote from a transportation agency. They finally found out it weighed 49,600 pounds (an average car is around 3,000 pounds). The total transportation costs exceeded $5,000.
Not a Hybrid
The MRAP finally arrived in Champaign County on March 22, 2014 after a two-day journey. An information sheet provides some specs on the truck. The BAE American General M998 MRAP has a six-cylinder turbocharged engine which puts out 450 horsepower. It is a six-wheel model with all-wheel drive. The MRAP is “Not a hybrid,” says the sheet, and gets approximately three miles per gallon. It is valued at $733,000.
The truck’s odometer read 29,000 miles, but the drive train was brand new. Urbana Sgt. Jason Norton found from his research that these MRAPS had received a $6 million upgrade to replace the engine, transmission, suspension, and air conditioning before the program was shut down.
In the article that appeared in the News-Gazette, Chief Deputy Allen Jones explained the truck would be used for high-risk warrants, hostage situations, and active shooters. “It can even help us get folks to where they need to go in bad weather,” he said. There is some truth to this claim. Earlier in the year, Champaign had inquired with the Northwest Regional SWAT team in Indiana about the MRAP they had received in October 2013. A commander said their MRAP had already been used to transport the victim of a hostage situation and pick up drivers stuck in a heavy snow storm. More telling though, just “this morning” they used the MRAP “to transport 12 guys for a drug warrant.”
Champaign’s history indicates that Sheriff Walsh will more likely deploy the MRAP to prosecute the War on Drugs in the African American community. In 2007, I conducted a study of 63 SWAT raids in Champaign County finding that 87 percent of them were for drugs. In the reports where race was indicated, 90 percent of raids were on African American households.
Across the country, communities are rejecting these military vehicles. In 2012, UC Berkeley police were stopped from purchasing a BearCat with Homeland Security money. Just days before Michael Brown was killed, the Albuquerque Police Department decided to get rid of its 1033-provided MRAP due to public pressure. When political satirist John Oliver mocked Saginaw, Michigan for owning an MRAP during a Ferguson commentary on his HBO show, the Sheriff announced the following day he was decommissioning the truck. In California, the police chief of Davis was ordered by city council to give up their MRAP within 60 days.
Important opposition has also emerged within Champaign-Urbana. Others addressed the county board on August 21, 2014 about the Sheriff’s MRAP. Karen Medina, born and raised in Champaign-Urbana, said she didn’t want this “tank” on the streets of her hometown. “We should think about these things,” Stuart Levy told the county board, “in terms of not whether they’re cheap to acquire, but whether they’re good for our community.”
A longer version of this article appeared on August 26, 2014. Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.