Friday, April 20, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Bay law enforcement sees value in military's MRAPs

The 33-ton vehicle towers at about 10 feet, its massive metal frame supported by six tires that can trudge easily through mud, sand and high water. Its price tag: $733,000.

But for only $2,000, law enforcement agencies nationwide, including some in the Tampa Bay area, have been able to snag these mine-resistant vehicles used to protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan against roadside bombs. Since August 2013, the Department of Defense has distributed 600 of them to law enforcement.

Forty-five of the vehicles, known as MRAPs, now belong to police departments in Florida. Five are in the Tampa Bay area.

"These vehicles are awesome. They really are," said Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen. "I could never afford a vehicle like this if the federal government wasn't supplying it to us."

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office, as well as the Tarpon Springs and Clearwater police departments, are now equipped with one MRAP each. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has two.

Since the 1990s, the federal government has been transferring surplus military equipment, such as vehicles, aircraft, boats and weapons, to police departments through the Defense Logistics Agency. Police don't own the gear, but instead typically pay a transfer fee that allows them to use the equipment.

"It is prudent to allow law enforcement agencies to use MRAPs versus scrapping them or allowing them to sit in storage if a military service does not need the excess vehicles," Mimi Schirmacher, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, said in a statement.

But in a 98-page report released last month, the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the potential militarization of police departments. Among the findings: SWAT teams, which typically respond during "high-risk" situations, often used armored military vehicles to respond to minor incidents, such as serving warrants related to low-level drug cases.

"The problem often is that there's very little policy or protocol or guidance in place to determine what a high risk is. That is left entirely to an officer's discretion," said ACLU's Center for Justice senior counsel Kara Dansky, the report's primary author. "We think there should be a lot more specificity in terms of defining what is high risk."

Local authorities said the MRAPs will be used only in rare occasions.

"These officers put their lives on the line," Kochen said. "If anyone wants to tell me I'm over-militarizing the department, then so be it. But I don't agree with that."

Tarpon Springs police will use its MRAP to evacuate residents during major flooding, as well as some SWAT calls. The city's Fire Department may also use the vehicle to respond to some emergencies, such as explosions. The Police Department is using between $15,000 and $25,000 in forfeiture funds to repurpose the MRAP.

Clearwater police obtained its MRAP in April and have not used it yet. Chief Tony Holloway said it will likely be deployed only if shots are fired so it can serve as a barrier between officers and an active shooter.

"If the person is shooting at us, we're not going to worry about that because it's not going to go through that," Holloway said as he pointed at the vehicle's bullet-resistant exterior. "I want to make sure that I can get my men and women out of the line of fire and I want to make sure that we get civilians out of the line of fire. Other than that, this vehicle will never be out in the public."

Using military vehicles also reduces costs for cash-strapped agencies with equipment needs, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. In 2006, the Sheriff's Office purchased an armored vehicle for $336,000.

"I'd rather get them surplus from the Army than go out and buy what is a law enforcement similar vehicle and spend $336,000 on it," he said. "We're just really updating what we have in a very cost-effective way."

Pasco Sheriff's Office's SWAT team also plans to use its MRAP, which had an original price of $412,000, during active shooter situations, said Lt. Tait Sanborn.

Within the past year, local agencies have also received other military items.

In February, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office paid $2,000 to use a Bell OH-58 surplus helicopter.

Clearwater police, as well as the Pinellas and Pasco sheriff's offices, recently obtained surplus Humvees that will be used in storm evacuations. During Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, four Clearwater police cruisers driven into flooded areas were totaled.

Humvees can navigate in up to 3 feet of water and transport more than six people at a time.

"If we use the tools the right way," Holloway said, "it brings safety to the community."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

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