Special Report: The Militarization of Local Police

LITTLE ROCK, AR - There's a trend that is sweeping the nation, including Arkansas. More and more police departments are aquiring military grade weapons and equipment.  

According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, in the years following the 9/11 attacks more than 34 billion dollars in grants were awarded to various law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism. But the recipients of those military type assets weren't just cities like New York or Washington D.C. They also included small towns, like Oxford, Mississippi and Pine Bluff, Arkansas which aren't exactly high-priority targets for terrorism.  

Law enforcement says the military grade equipment is necessary to protect officers and the community. But critics argue, these more aggressive tools translate into more aggressive policing. But is this type of equipment really necessary or are local police departments becoming more militarized for the wrong reasons?

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, a tidal wave of military surplus equipment is turning up in small towns all across the U.S. including here in Arkansas. Jefferson County just added a six-wheeled, nine-foot tall, 55,000 pound mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP to its arsenal.

“Do you come across a lot of mines here in Pine Bluff?” I asked Major Lafeyette Woods with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. “Absolutely not and I hope not. I hope not,” he said. The bulletproof vehicle costs $733,000. 

But because they are no longer needed overseas, they are either scrapped or offered to local law enforcement agencies for free through the federally mandated 1033 program. “The only thing we paid was the service fee and transport which equated to about $7,000,” said Major Woods.

Besides Jefferson County, other agencies throughout the state are also beefing up their arsenal, courtesy of the 1033 program. According to records obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency, since 2013, Arkansas has received more than 17 MRAP’s. Pulaski received four, Benton, three and Saline County two. Other counties that have received the mine resistant vehicle include: Jefferson, Miller, Garland, Independence, Union, Lonoke, Craighead and Sebastian.  

Cash strapped law enforcement agencies say they're necessary especially when Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are deployed. “It’s important to us to make sure our officers on those teams, specialized teams, have maximum ballistic protection. This vehicle provides that,” said Major Woods.

But it's not just mine resistant vehicles. Law enforcement agencies in Arkansas are also receiving other military-like equipment that were originally intended for an overseas battlefield.   

Since 2009 Arkansas has received nearly 1,500 military items including: automatic pistols, high powered rifles, night vision equipment, combat assault vehicles and more, often with little public notice. 

The growing trend has some people keeping a close eye. “From my perspective, it’s a greater militarization of the police that almost all of the police in the United States are armed with M-16’s,” said UALR Professor and Chair of Criminal Justice Dr. Walker.

Dr. Walker says the militarization of local law enforcement is nothing new and doesn’t think we should be too concerned, at least not yet. “You may see some time in the next two to three years when an MRAP gets used inappropriately for a riot or whatever, but I think you’ll also see a great backlash. I don’t think the public will put up with that anymore and we need to pay close attention to it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) certainly is. Holly Dixon is the Legal Director at the Arkansas ACLU. She says they are very concerned about the perception as well as the reality and that the public should be too.
“The problem is there are not limits, checks, track on that equipment like there should be.”  

Which is why the ACLU believes federal and state laws need to be created stating when and under what circumstances these military type vehicles can be used or not. Right now that decision is left up to the SWAT commander. 

“We need uniformity across the nation and across the state as to how this equipment is to be used,” said Dixon.  

But to her knowledge those wheels have yet to be put in motion.

Despite what critics might say, law enforcement agencies like Jefferson County march forward because in their eyes, lives are at stake and keeping up with the criminals requires them to take what some might call extraordinary steps.  

“They’re missing the big picture and the reason why we got it and that’s mainly to maximize ballistic protection to our SWAT Team,” said Major Woods.

The militarization of local police is far from over and so is the debate over how much is too much, especially when lives are at stake.

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