‘US a warzone’: Police deploy heavy armor in America

Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

From the streets of Fallujah to Franklin, Indiana, heavily armored military vehicles have been rolled out for one and the same reason: many police officers in the US believe there’s a war going on.

Franklin, Indiana is by all accounts the idyllic Midwestern
American town. Eponymously named after one of the founding
fathers and “the first American,” Franklin’s small town bona
fides provided Life Magazine with a Norman Rockwell-esque scene
for a bit of village life utopia in the heart of the Great

But if you were to talk to local law enforcement, a battle is
raging in the streets of Mayberry.

Franklin is the county seat of Johnson Country, Indiana. Speaking
with Mark Alesia from The Indianapolis Star, Sheriff Doug Cox
described the 139,000-strong administrative district as a place
where officers’ old-time policing just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Leading Alesia to a pole barn in Franklin, Cox shows him a MRAP –
a 55,000 pound, six-wheeled Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected
armored-fighting vehicle with the word “SHERIFF” emblazoned on
its flank.

“We don’t have a lot of mines in Johnson County,”
confessed Sheriff Doug Cox, who acquired the vehicle. “My job
is to make sure my employees go home safe.”

Cox isn’t alone in believing his deputies have something to fear.
Johnson County is one of eight Indiana law enforcement agencies
to acquire MRAPs from military surplus since 2010, according to
public records obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

All across the state, and the country, the trend is similar. From
picking up military surplus to using to $35 billion in grants
from the Department of Homeland Security to acquire the most
advanced weapons, police forces across America are armed to the

And as Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer puts it, the effects
are not only tactical, but psychological.

To put it bluntly: “It’s a lot more intimidating than a

Police SWAT team members (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Pulaski, mind you, is a county of roughly 13,000 people. The
question of whether civilians need to be intimidated like that
depends on your perspective, and as far as Gayer sees things,
America is a battlefield and the police are akin to an occupying

“The United States of America has become a war zone,” he
said. “There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in
schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing
police departments going to a semi-military format because of the
threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is
going to protect officers, then that’s what I’m going to

‘What if it were your kid’

The militarization of America was covered in a recent Vice.com documentary, entitled: ‘Here’s
What Happens When Hackers Send a SWAT Team to Your House.’

Danny Gold heads to Somerset County, New Jersey, what he
describes as “one of the wealthiest counties in the US.”

Sgt. Edward Ciempola, commander of the county SWAT team, boasts
of a Lenco BearCat Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter
Attack Truck, which he says they use on “every call

With infrared cameras in stock and other military grade hardware,
Gold asks Ciempola one simple question: in a quiet, relatively
crime-free area, is all of this hardware really necessary?

“I would ask somebody that maybe suffered a loss because of not
having this service and I would ask them the answer to that
question,” Ciempola said.

“I would say, well, the SWAT team wasn’t available when you
really needed it or a police officer wasn’t available when you
really needed it, or an ambulance didn’t get there when you
really needed it. How does that make you feel? And if your
child’s school was suddenly under attack by some random actors,
do you want them coming (points to SWAT team) to help your kid or
do you want no one to show up?”

Despite the fears of Ciempola and Gayer, in a 2012 Department of
Justice report, violent crime had declined by 72 percent from
79.8 to 22.5 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older since 1993. And
yet, what’s happening in places like Franklin and Somerset County
are the exception rather than the rule.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Radley Balko noted the
disturbing trend in SWAT team growth across the country.

He argues that SWAT teams in municipalities with populations
between 25,000 and 50,000 have “increased by more than 300
percent between 1984 and 1995.”

By 1995, nearly 90 percent of cities with 50,000 or more people
had a SWAT team. In 2000, 75 percent of towns with 25,000 to
50,000 people had their own SWAT teams as well. And those
paramilitary units are not sitting idly by.

Police SWAT team members (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Citing Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky
University, Balko says the total number of SWAT raids in America
has increased exponentially, from just a few hundred per year in
the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000
by the mid-2000s.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
“disproportionately those in poor communities and communities
of color – have become targets for violent SWAT raids, often
because the police suspect they have small amounts of drugs in
their homes.”

And with the SWAT teams comes the military hardware. In Keene,
New Hampshire, a town with two murders since 2009, officials
accepted a $285,933 grant from the Department of Defense in 2012
to purchase a BearCat. In Columbia, South Carolina, a MRAP which
can be equipped with a 50-caliber machine gun was picked up in
2013. In the sleepy town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina – a
town of 16,000 people, police got their hands on their own
Humvees and MRAPs, which they went on to display at a car show.

According to March report in USA Today co-written by US
Representative Hank Johnson, the following counties “have
acquired free MRAPs from US war zones”:

McLennan and Dallas Counties in Texas; Boise and Nampa Counties
in Idaho; Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville, and Madison
Counties in Indiana (not to mention Johnson); Minnesota’s St.
Cloud and Dakota Counties in Minnesota; Warren and Jefferson
Counties in New York; North Augusta and Columbia in South
Carolina; Murfreesboro in Tennessee; Yuma in Arizona; Kankakee
County in Illinois; and Calhoun County in Alabama.

Many of the vehicles were acquired through the 1033 program, a
1997 law which facilitated the transfer of military hardware to
local police forces. But what appears to be free federal handouts
could result in fundamentally changing the face of the United

“Americans should therefore be concerned, unless they want
their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war
Johnson lamented.

“We recognized that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but are
MRAPs really needed in small-town America? Are improvised
explosive devices, grenade attacks, mines, shelling and other
war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids, a town of
16,000 people? No.”

A member of the SWAT team (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Johnson, a member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary
Committees, announced he was introducing legislation to reform
the 1033 program “before America’s main streets and civilian
police militarize further.”
The ACLU, meanwhile, has
launched an investigation into the militarization of US police.

“The police officers on our streets and in our neighborhoods
are not soldiers fighting a war. Yet many have been armed with
tactics and weapons designed for battle overseas,”
it said.

In 2013, ACLU affiliates in 25 states filed over 260 public
records requests with law enforcement agencies to document the
impact of excessively militarized policing on people, families,
and communities.

But as Balko warns, vested interests are likely to keep pushing
the police-industrial complex until America is on lockdown.

“A new industry appears to be emerging just to convert those
grants into battle-grade gear,”
he said.

“That means we’ll soon have powerful private interests,
funded by government grants, who will lobby for more government
grants to pay for further militarization — a police industrial

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