One of the most riveting images that has emerged out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri is of civilian police officers using military vehicles for crowd control. For years, the Department of Defense has distributed equipment and vehicles to law enforcement offices all across the country, including some in Wyoming. I rode along with the Cheyenne SWAT team as they trained with their new military vehicle.
The Cheyenne PD’s new Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected Vehicle or MRAP is about the size of a city garbage truck, but its seems much bigger than that. It’s all angles, jutting armor and massive shocks, and its tires look like they could crush my old sedan without much of a problem. It’s also very loud.
The vehicle was built for combat in Kabul or Fallujah, not for the streets Cheyenne. And that makes it a little tough to drive here. SWAT team leader Lt. Terrence Bell is teaching the rules of the road. He invited me out to show me why acquiring the MRAP was necessary for his department. We start with the SWAT team’s old armored truck.
“This is the old peacekeeper,” Bell says as he opens the door on the light green, heavily used vehicle. “See how much smaller it is?”
That vehicle is half the size, has less armor, and is thirty years older than the MRAP. Bell also points out that it has something the MRAP doesn’t have: weapon mounts.
“You have your portals, that you can shoot out of. You have your turret to mount a weapon--this is more of a fighting vehicle.”
When Bell and his team set out to replace their old armored vehicle last year they went to a Department of Defense program that distributes surplus military vehicles to police departments for cheap. Like, really cheap. A new MRAP costs over seven hundred thousand dollars--Cheyenne paid jeighteen hundred dollars for theirs, and that was just to cover gas and travel expenses to pick up the vehicle in Texas.
Bell says that, without the Department of Defense program, his department would have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a civilian armored vehicle. And even though Cheyenne’s SWAT team doesn’t plan on using its MRAP often, there are situations when it would be crucial. Bell offered the example of a time eight years ago when a guy barricaded himself in a Cheyenne firehouse and threatened to blow up its propane tanks.
“That would have been a perfect situation for this. We could have gotten close to the situation, and even if the propane tank had gone off we would have still been safe.”
But what about the fact that seeing a vehicle made for war in the middle east parked on the curb is scary for a lot of people?
“Problem is nobody comes out and looks at it,” says Bell. “I couldn’t shoot you from this vehicle if I wanted to. All the rules as per the Constitution, federal law, state law still apply. I don’t get to run over you just because I have this vehicle. This vehicle just allows me to not get shot.”
Bell drew an analogy to firefighters. We wouldn’t send them to fight a fire without all the equipment they might need, he said, so why would we deny cops, who also risk their lives, any equipment they might possibly need?
Wyoming ACLU Director Linda Burt didn’t buy it.
“I don’t think you can compare it to fireman,” she tells me in her Cheyenne office. “Fireman don’t scare me, fireman are there to help me. In these situations police have given the expectation that they are not there to help.”
While these military vehicles are usually reserved for SWAT teams, Burt points to a study from the national ACLU that says 62% of the time SWAT teams are deployed its for simple drug warrants.
Wyoming currently does not have explicit regulations as to how MRAP’s can and can’t be used. Cheyenne’s PD relies on a subjective risk matrix, and does not publicly report instances when armored vehicles are used.
Burt says that police need to be able to protect themselves, “but the individuals and the citizens have the right to be protected from police. And from any kind of excessive violence or excessive use of this equipment.”
The Paramount Cafe is a local’s spot in downtown Cheyenne. I asked Lou Christo, a truck driver, what he thought about his city’s police force getting military armored vehicles as he was walking past.
“I think its good for them. I mean, you got drug dealers and criminals that outman and outgun the police. Anything we can do to support them I believe is a good thing.”
Amy Larson is another passerby, and her position is a little more complicated. Her dad and her boyfriend are cops. She says of course she wants them to be safe, but having police share so much with soldiers perpetuates a destructive cycle.
“If police are treating citizens like enemies in a war zone it kind of makes the citizens respond as if the police were an enemy they would find in a war zone.”
It remains to be seen how law enforcement agencies in Wyoming will use their military vehicles. Lt. Bell says his team is still working on drivers’ training.