Commentary: How Much Militarization of the Police Do We Need?

As the Vanguard reported yesterday, Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto reversed his request to receive an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle).  While this had to be a difficult decision for the sheriff, who personally lobbied the Yolo County Board of Supervisors for the vehicle back in February, it was the right call.

While the sheriff probably saw the writing on the wall with regard to a vote in late April, he also in a statement recognized that there was a bigger picture.

As the statement read, “The Sheriff recognizes that a vital component to the relations between the community and our officers is trust. The concerns of many community members, which were demonstrated at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting in February, were heard, measured, understood and carefully evaluated.”

The statement noted, “While Sheriff Prieto empathizes and agrees with some of these concerns expressed, ultimately, taking into careful consideration the backdrop of the current national political climate and the fear of police militarization, the Sheriff believes community confidence and trust are more important than the acquisition of an MRAP vehicle.”

Personally, when the sheriff told the board his plan for the vehicle being for “protection to the community and law enforcement officers in high risk emergency operations such as active shooters, bomb threats, hostage rescues and other high risk situations,” I believed him.

However, there are two other considerations here.  First, I do not know who his successor will be in the next few years and, second, it is difficult to know to what extent the federal government can commandeer such a vehicle to use for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids or in response to protests.

We have seen the potential of these vehicles to inflame tensions, as we saw in Ferguson and Standing Rock, and now as we enter a new era and new administration, those concerns only become magnified.

One of the arguments that some opponents had against the acquisition of the MRAP by the sheriff’s department is the existence of two MRAPs in the county already – one in the Woodland PD and the other with the West Sacramento PD.

The presence of two MRAPs should be a matter of concern rather than comfort.  There is no doubt that there are legitimate needs and uses for armored vehicle.  But those needs are remote and infrequent.

It is notable that less than six months after Davis’ City Council voted 3-1-1 to send back the MRAP that Davis police had acquired, that very MRAP (which Woodland then accepted) was back in Davis along with the one from West Sacramento.  Was a potential hostage/active shooter situation a legitimate use for the vehicles?  Perhaps.  But at the same time, there was no guidance or oversight on its use.

One of the points that the sheriff makes in his statement is, “To purchase a similar vehicle would cost the tax payers well over $200,000 for the initial purchase.”

Davis had a similar discussion a few years ago when the council offered to consider purchasing a more appropriate and less militarized armored vehicle at a similar cost of $200,000.  Davis’ police chief largely turned that purchase down.

Why?  Because there were other priorities for the use of that money.  The police can argue that having to purchase a vehicle of this sort would come out of other priorities, but what this tells me is that the vehicle is a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.”

What this brings up is that rather than feeling “safe” that there are two MRAPs in Yolo county, we should discuss whether we need any MRAPs at all – and, if we do, we should as a community discuss when and how vehicles brought into our community should be used.

The ACLU notes, “Federal programs providing surplus military equipment, along with departments’ own purchases, have outfitted officers with firepower that is often far beyond what is necessary for their jobs as protectors of their communities. Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform ‘normal’ police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence.”

The ACLU continues, “The ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, ‘War Comes Home,’ found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes.”

While some of those may be dangerous situations, even in this county we have seen raids on marijuana cultivation, such as the case by TRIDENT (Tri-County Drug Enforcement Task Force), which came into Yolo County and raided a legal cultivation operation in western Yolo County.  That operation saw kids subjected to heavy-handed police actions and, with the availability of an MRAP and other military equipment, the possibility that an outside agency could violate our local norms simply increases.

Last year the New Yorker reported a filmmaker noticed that, in response to the Boston Marathon bombing, “the police in Boston and its suburbs sent armored cars into the streets and deployed officers dressed like Storm Troopers, who carried assault rifles and fanned out across neighborhoods as though they were in an infantry division in Afghanistan.”

The filmmaker, Craig Atkinson, would ask himself “when did local police forces, in their equipment and tactics, come to resemble armies of occupation?”  He created a documentary called Do Not Resist which “traces the transformation of police departments across the United States into forces that often look like our Army and Marines—and all too often act like them.

“The film takes a series of events that might appear unrelated—the heavy-handed police response to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; the use of heavily armed SWAT teams in South Carolina to carry out routine drug arrests—and shows that they are part of a pattern that has taken hold in many police departments across the country.”

“What we discovered is that the there had been a massive change in the tactics used by SWAT teams,” Mr. Atkinson told me. “And that happened as the federal government was giving away military equipment to police departments.”

We therefore applaud the sheriff’s decision, but what we want to know is when can a community like Davis or the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office bring in an MRAP from West Sacramento or Woodland?  Are there rules that govern this?  And who oversees it?

Shouldn’t we have a community discussion that lays out the parameters of use?

Or, to ask my initial question: How much militarization of police do we need?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    I give much credit to Sheriff Prieto for his willingness to consider community opinion in this matter. With his degree of experience it can be difficult to accept that what you see as a positive may be seen very differently by others regardless of personal intent.

    I think that you are right about the need for a discussion on current process and decision making on when to consider the use of the two available MRAPS. Perhaps Chief Pytel might be interested in again providing a community education event such as was held regarding the Davis MRAP acquisition. It would be good for such a discussion to occur prior to use, especially in the current climate. The issue of the potential for ICE use would alone be enough for me to want clarification.

  2. PhilColeman

    Obtaining a MRAP-type vehicle has been consistently justified by proponents as necessary for potential future law enforcement hazards that put them at personal risk. The risks are presented prospectively, presumably based on statistically significant numbers of past incidents and the likelihood that they will continue or even increase.

    And yet, never has there been a comprehensive statistical analysis by “militarization” proponents on the actual number of past instances of active shooters, bomb threats, hostage rescues, and “other” undefined hazards. The primary reason no numbers are given is because such police events supporting obtaining military-style equipment are extremely rare. Indeed, law enforcement injury and fatalities are found in the much more numerous instances of chance encounters with hazards, for which the officer has no chance to call for mobilized military style equipment or personnel of any sort.

    You never need a MRAP nor do you need a SWAT team to respond to a bomb threat. The County already has an exceptionally well qualified, equipped, and experienced Bomb Disposal Unit. Their protective equipment is far superior to anything else for this specific mission. They certainly don’t need to jump into a MRAP to get to a suspected bomb. The bomb threat argument is a folly.

    Active shooters and hostage situations are static crime scenes. They have to be to be able to call out SWAT and and to activate deploy the MRAP, which consumes hours of preparation. And when both get to the crime scene, they sit and wait, and allow the other highly trained experts called Hostage Negotiations Teams to work their charm.

    Count up the number of instances where an armored vehicle would be primarily responsible for the rescue of hostages in the history of Yolo County and you’d get zero. Count up the number of past active shooters in Yolo County where a MRAP presence would be critical to a safe resolution of the event and the tally is zero.

    That’s why there has never been a thorough statistical analysis prepared in advance in support of any MRAP request or request for similar military hardware.


  3. Mark Kropp

    Sheriff Prieto is a leader’s leader!

    I look forward to his recommendations going forward to protect and serve our county. I also note that as a member of the Yolo Couty Grand Jury that several years in a row members have been favorably impressed. He is a man, (when there is time), takes the time to explain. He works off of intuition, gut feeling, and experience. Most importantly he decides with critical fact and logic. I have not known him to be wrong.

    I thank him for representing us. And I will vote for him until he decides to retire.

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