Austin, state law enforcement say military equipment is misunderstood

Published 10:09 am Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Members of the Austin Special Incident Response Team move a Humvee into position in front of an Eighth Street Northwest home in January, the site of a standoff with Austin police. Herald file photo

Members of the Austin Special Incident Response Team move a Humvee into position in front of an Eighth Street Northwest home in January, the site of a standoff with Austin police. Herald file photo

The Austin Police Department received a Humvee last year for free through a military surplus program. Though local police say the Humvee has proven to be a good investment, they don’t try to get military-grade equipment unless it serves a purpose.

Austin is among Minnesota law enforcement agencies that have almost $10 million in military hardware — including about 3,300 weapons, 40 tactical vehicles and 40 pairs of night-vision goggles — through a federal program that transfers military surplus equipment to local police.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported this amount worries some who fear police are becoming too militarized. But law enforcement agencies say the gear is misunderstood.

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“The equipment comes from the military, but it is not being used in Minnesota in most cases in that type of traditional military fashion,” said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Skoogman said his group is polling members, and so far, most chiefs feel strongly that the equipment is important.

“It provides officers with equipment, guns and night-vision goggles to help solve crimes as well as keep citizens and themselves safe,” Skoogman said. “It provides office equipment that many departments and cities cannot afford. It provides fitness equipment that keeps officers in shape and in good health.”

Austin Police Capt. Dave McKichan said area police haven’t tried to purchase much military equipment, in part because the department tries to get equipment that will help protect residents without escalating a situation.

“What local law enforcement gets, generally, is items that help us protect officers,” McKichan said. “It’s unfortunate in this day and age, but gun violence is pretty prevalent. We recover several guns per month.”

But Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said he’s concerned, especially after watching a heavily armed police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old.

“We’re beginning to see that there are certain tactics that police use, certain equipment that police use, that treats a community more like an occupying force,” Samuelson said.

Joe Kelly, deputy director of Minnesota’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says Minnesota has received a total of $25 million in gear over the years, including furniture, clothing and computers. Currently, 280 law enforcement agencies throughout the state have $10 million in equipment from the program, totaling more than 6,000 items.

Some who back the federal program say critics focus too much on the devices’ names, instead of what they are used for.

For example, the Anoka Police Department has a grenade launcher. Chief Phil Johanson said his department has never used it and that it wouldn’t launch grenades. However, he said, the launcher “could be used to deploy tear gas to hopefully get (a suspect) to come out if we had a hostage or barricaded subject, maybe an active shooter situation.”

Dakota County has one of seven Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Sheriff Dave Bellows said it’s an armored vehicle to protect officers from being shot, but it doesn’t have weapons attached to it.

Austin had briefly considered getting a MRAP too, but police decided against the vehicle as they wanted to buy something that would offer protection from gunfire without scaring residents.

“We put forethought into the type of vehicles we bring into this community,” McKichan said.

The Humvee is armored, which allows officers to drive close to a situation involving guns without risking officers’ lives. While gunfire would tear through normal vehicles, the Humvee allows police to get involved in dangerous situations with less risk. Police have used the Humvee several times, including in a potentially dangerous standoff in January where carjacking suspects were believed to have holed up in a northwest Austin home with a gun.

McKichan said police hope to repaint the Humvee and make it a little less militaristic-looking as soon as funding becomes available.

Skoogman said other items include a mobile rock-climbing wall that Breckenridge police use at community events, and a former military truck that Janesville police have used to rescue snow-stranded motorists.

Still, M16 rifles make up nearly 40 percent of the military equipment in Minnesota. St. Paul police, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, the Minnesota State Patrol and other agencies say the M16s have been modified so they are no longer automatic weapons.

“You’ll never see a St. Paul officer just out there on patrol with this rifle,” said St. Paul police Cmdr. Tim Flynn. “If it’s in their hands, it’s a reaction to a serious crime that has just been committed.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.