The War’s Over—Free Tanks for Everyone!

Yreka Police Chief Brian Bowles stands next to the armored vehicle his department obtained at no cost from the Pentagon

Recently, police departments all over the country have gotten their hands on vehicles that most Americans haven’t seen outside of war coverage.

From Yreka, California to Dallas, Texas to Ohio State University, police are acquiring mine-resistant armored personnel carriers (MRAPs)–heavily armored vehicles that are designed to stand up against insurgent attacks.

What’s going on here?  Is this the last stage in the New World Order’s plot to transform America into a totalitarian dictatorship?  More plausibly, it’s just cost savings.

As military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq winds down, the Department of Defense is finding itself with a lot of equipment it can’t use.  Accordingly, pursuant to its “Excess Property Program,” the DOD is donating that equipment to local police to use in domestic law enforcement, instead of letting it rust away in some DOD storage facility.  The Army has more than 20,000 MRAPs, and more of them are coming home.

There’s no question that these things are fucking cool.  According to its product description, Ohio State’s “MaxxPro” MRAP weighs 19 tons and is built to withstand “ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IED’s, and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical environments.”

And the donation scheme has a certain appeal to it: don’t we want the equipment we’ve already spent a ton of money on (DOD spent $44 billion on its MRAP fleet) to be used, rather than go to waste? MRAPs may be well-suited to resolving states of emergency. In responding to a mass shooting, for example, police could use a MRAP to search for active shooters and rescue injured civilians while minimizing risk to officers and other first responders.

The question is whether these are good enough reasons to give police vehicles that were built for the battlefield, intended for the battlefield, and look like they belong on the battlefield.  History suggests that MRAP use will likely not stay limited.  When military-grade equipment and vehicles end up in the hands of local law enforcement, it tends to get used for everything under the sun.

America’s experience with SWAT teams is instructive.  SWAT teams were developed in the 1960s to deal with states of emergency that resembled urban warfare—mass riots, hostage situations, etc. Today, as Radley Balko and others have documented, they’re used to raid poker games, conduct regulatory inspections, and bust nonviolent drug offenders.

Why? Because they signal toughness on crime to the community; because they’re thought to discourage any potential resistance, even if there’s no reason to expect violence; because funds might be taken away if they’re not used; and because they’re cool and get good press.

Why might the overuse of MRAPs be a bad thing? These things are huge, heavy, and capable of doing a tremendous amount of damage to people and property.  It’s not hard to conjure up nightmarish tactical scenarios, like roofs of off-campus residences being brought down on top of small-time drug dealers and their campus customers.

But the psychological effect of MRAP overuse may ultimately be more corrosive.  They’re cool, but they’re also scary. In many neighborhoods, people are already more afraid of the cops than they are of the criminals.  Seeing MRAPs in action may just exacerbate the fear and hostility that discourages cooperation between cops and ordinary citizens and thus makes peaceful conflict resolution rarer than it might otherwise be.

Cops ensconced in the belly of these beasts may be disincentivized from seeking peaceful conflict resolution. When you limit the costs of aggressive action, it stands to reason you’ll see more of it, with the end result that more violence may be introduced into situations that could have been resolved without force.

So it’s disturbing that there already hints in public statements by officials that MRAP use will not be limited to emergencies.  According to Dallas County Chief Deputy Martin Suell, “Having a tactical vehicle will not only provide warrants execution with the equipment to assist in performing their jobs but will provide an overall safety arch.”

There’s no hint of a principle of limitation befitting the extraordinary nature of the MRAP.  The police frequently use paramilitary tactics to execute search warrants, and who knows how much police activity can be subsumed within the mandate to “provide an overall safety arch.”

The Pentagon has tens of thousands of MRAPs left over from combat operations abroad.

Other officials have been more cautious. Yreka Police Chief Brian Bowles seems to understand the gravity of the responsibility that comes with such equipment. Although he believes that it will be useful to deal with emergencies, specifically, mass shootings, he has expressed hope that “we will never have to use it.”  At the same time, however, he acknowledges that his staff is “excited to receive training on the new vehicle and learn about its capabilities.” There just might be a strong internal push to play with the new toy, if there isn’t already.

The answer isn’t necessarily to ban MRAPs from all domestic law enforcement, however.  As noted above, they may have legitimate uses. One potential way to ensure that they are limited to those uses is to place the authority for mobilizing them in the hands of state governors, like the National Guard.  Legislators could draft statutes that ensure that MRAPs stay out of sight until certain extreme conditions are met, and that the governor must personally approve their use.

But it is critical that MRAPs not be left in the hands of local police to wheel out at their discretion. Yes, they are cool.  Yes, it’s a shame to see expensive equipment go to waste.  Yes, MRAPs may be useful in certain situations.  Those situations, however, will are few and far between, and there’s good reason to think that these armored vehicles will be overused, absent tight restrictions. And you needn’t believe they’re an Illuminati conspiracy to pacify the public to think that tanks on the street is a frightening prospect.

Evan-Bernick-HeadshotEvan Bernick is a Visiting Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he writes on overcriminalization and constitutional law. He holds a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.