Friday, February 28, 2014
In South Carolina, some local police departments have more of a military look these days.
At least five police agencies in the Palmetto State – the Columbia Police Department; the Florence, Marion and Richland County sheriff’s departments; and the North Augusta Department of Public Safety – each recently acquired an armored military personnel carrier known as a “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected,” or MRAP, vehicle, The Nerve confirmed this week.
Weighing 14-plus tons and typically having a V-shaped hull, thick armor and a shielded opening on top, the MRAPs were designed to withstand roadside bomb blasts and high-powered rifle attacks, and were used heavily by the U.S. military in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
With the drawdown of U.S. forces in those areas, the Department of Defense is making those vehicles more available to police departments across the country. Since August, the Department of Defense has transferred 196 MRAPs to law enforcement agencies nationwide, Tonya Johnson, a Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman, told The Nerve in a written response last week.
In an interview with The Nerve, Columbia Police Capt. E.M. Marsh, who heads the department’s SWAT unit, said the city didn’t have to purchase its MRAP vehicle from the military, though it pays $2,000 annually to participate in a military program, called the “1033 Program,” that supplies the vehicles, as well as other excess military equipment and items, to selected U.S. police agencies.
Depending on the model, MRAPs cost between $400,000 and $700,000, Johnson said. Columbia’s vehicle is a 2008 model and was used by the military for training exercises, Marsh said, noting it has logged about 4,000 miles.
Marsh last week allowed a Nerve reporter to view the city’s MRAP vehicle, which was parked outside a city public works garage. It can seat up to six officers in the back; another officer can stand on a small platform to view out the shielded top.
The Columbia Police Department, which has 406 officers, received its MRAP vehicle last Sept. 11 from Fort Bragg, N.C., according to records provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. Marsh told The Nerve that it was his understanding that other S.C. police agencies received their MRAP vehicles about the same time.
Marsh said it cost the city $800 to have its MRAP vehicle transported from Fort Bragg to Columbia. Local agencies are responsible for transportation costs, Johnson said.
The Department of Defense retains ownership of the vehicles, which “must be used for at least one year or returned” to the military, Johnson said.
Columbia’s MRAP vehicle was repainted to a blue color to make it look less military, Marsh said, adding, “We looked at black, but to us it felt a lot more intimidating.”
In a memo that was used for an online application for Columbia’s MRAP vehicle, Marsh said the vehicle is needed to “protect our officers and the public during high risk counter drug and counter terrorism operations within the city of Columbia and the state of South Carolina.”
“Our agency often assists surrounding agencies during these types of critical operations,” Marsh wrote. “Fort Jackson is also located within the City of Columbia and we have a close working relationship with their tactical team and assist as needed.”
Asked last week if he considered Columbia a terrorism target, Marsh replied, “It’s not, but just like everywhere else, it could be.”
“If we never have to use this vehicle, we have accomplished our goal,” he said, noting the vehicle hasn’t been on an emergency calls so far but instead has been used mainly for a “few training exercises to drive it and in a few parades.”
Marsh said he would use the MRAP vehicle only in the most dangerous situations, such as someone firing a gun in public or threatening the public or officers with a gun or bomb. City officers recently responded to an incident in which a man was sitting on a porch pointing a shotgun at himself, but the MRAP vehicle was not used in that case, mainly because the man was not threatening anyone else, he said.
Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Lt. Tim Thornton, spokesman for the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, said he is aware of public criticism about police departments becoming more militarized with the acquisition of military vehicles and equipment.
“The paranoia that the government is slowly taking over the world – I understand that,” he said. “But that’s not here in North Augusta.”
“A lot of the negative feedback around here was, ‘Do we really need that size of a vehicle when we’re really a small little town?’” Thornton said. “This problem will only fix itself with the evolution of time … if the public sees how it’s going to save a life.”
Still, Thornton, whose department has 56 sworn officers, pointed out that “there are times when intimidation is a good thing, when strength and authority have its place,” though he added, “We don’t take our authority lightly.”
“We don’t run it (the MRAP vehicle) in the annual Christmas parade,” he said. “We don’t drive it around town to be seen.”
Unlike in Columbia, combating terrorism wasn’t a listed reason for North Augusta acquiring its MRAP vehicle, according to Thornton.
Thornton said the department’s vehicle, which hasn’t been on any emergency calls yet, would be used only in life-threatening situations, such as an incident involving “an active shooter.”
“We don’t see a use of this vehicle in any capacity other than for defense,” said Florence County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Nunn, the department’s chief lawyer and spokesman, when contacted this week by The Nerve. “If we have a hostage situation, if we have an active-shooter situation, and have to put something between us or a wounded civilian, that would be a reason to use that vehicle.”
Nunn said the department decided to get an MRAP vehicle because another armored vehicle used by his agency was “no longer serviceable.”
“Its capacity and capability greatly exceed our needs, but it meets our expectations,” Nunn said about the MRAP vehicle, adding, “We don’t expect to encounter a (land) mine.”
In Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott took an early liking to military vehicles, rolling out in 2008 the M113A2 armored personnel carrier, which can carry about 13 people. Painted black and dubbed the “Peacemaker,” it’s used mainly in parades and other community events, said sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Chris Cowan.
“It’s been a great icebreaker with kids and adults,” Cowan said when contacted Tuesday by The Nerve.
In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, Lott said his department’s MRAP vehicle was obtained in October through the military’s 1033 Program “via the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Department.” Efforts by The Nerve to reach Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews were unsuccessful.
Lott said his agency plans to use its vehicle for “community policing programs and also for personnel protection.”
“The personnel protection aspect of this type of equipment provides a tactical advantage that greatly increases our personnel’s protection in dangerous situations that may present themselves during special response team call outs,” Lott said.
Marsh, of the Columbia Police Department, said besides the MRAP vehicle, he has used the 1033 Program to obtain a military Humvee vehicle, a small box truck, bomb-disposal robots, clothing, tools and other items that the department might not otherwise be able to afford. As with the MRAP vehicle, the department didn’t have to purchase other items obtained through the program, he said.
“It’s all the little stuff that’s making a big difference to us,” he said.
Still, Marsh acknowledged that the MRAP vehicle, which he noted his department was on a two-year waiting list to obtain, is the most visible – and controversial – acquisition.
“I admit it’s a very intimidating piece of equipment,” he said. “But if used properly, it’s a very useful piece of equipment.”
Reach Rick Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick.