Sunday, March 16, 2014

USA Today - Small town America shouldn't resemble war zone

Something potentially sinister is happening across America, and we should stop and take notice before it changes the character of our country forever. County, city and small-town police departments across the country are now acquiring free military-grade weapons that could possibly be used against the very citizens and taxpayers that not only fund their departments but who the police are charged with protecting.

Recently in a small, sleepy North Carolina town of roughly 16,000 people, the Roanoke Rapids Police Department acquired some Humvees and Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (or MRAPs), which it proudly displayed at a recent car show. Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The town's police chief, Tommy Hathaway, noted, perhaps unintentionally, the misuse of this equipment on America's main streets, saying that "its intended purpose is to prevent mass casualties and to extricate people," but that hopefully Roanoke Rapids will never need it.

Next door, in South Carolina, the Columbia Police Department also received a free MRAP from the Pentagon, which otherwise would have cost Columbia nearly $700,000 (though the city is responsible for all repairs and upkeep going forward). Their interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, justified the acquisition saying that the MRAP "will be a barrier between the public and a hostile person or situation such as a barricaded suspect with weapons who may be threatening someone's life." We are quickly redefining what a rational response to a security threat looks like.

How many other Columbia's are out there?

In fact, in the last several months, the following towns around the country, many of them small, have acquired free MRAPs from U.S. war zones: Texas's McLennan and Dallas Counties; Idaho's Boise and Nampa; Indiana's West Lafayette, Merrillville, and Madison; Minnesota's St. Cloud and Dakota County; New York's Warren and Jefferson Counties; South Carolina's North Augusta and Columbia; Tennessee's Murfreesboro; Arizona's Yuma; Illinois's Kankakee County; and Alabama's Calhoun County.

Seem like a lot? It is. And that's only in the last few months. This trend is not only sweeping America's small cities, it's hitting American college campuses as well. Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP. Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy.

These are just some of the most egregious examples. There are countless stories of police departments getting (and often later selling) assault weapons, drones, and other military-grade equipment that is absolutely ill-suited for America's main streets. The Pentagon's 1033 program, which "provides or transfers surplus Department of Defense military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies without charge," is a big part of this disturbing trend.

Why is there surplus, especially when the Defense Department is threatening to cut jobs anytime Congress talks about defense cuts as part of sequestration or the Budget Control Act? The primary reasons is that we're drawing down from two major equipment-laden wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while some of this equipment is being destroyed in the war zone, at a loss of billions in American taxpayer dollars, much of it is now being returned to the U.S. Additionally, by passing off still-good equipment to America's municipal police forces, it allows the defense industry to ask for more funding for more equipment.

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