When director Ivan Reitman made the movie “Stripes,” he wasn’t trying to predict the future. He was just trying to be funny. The vehicle for his humor (literally) was the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle, commandeered by a ragtag group of neophyte soldiers led by actor Bill Murray. It resembled a family Winnebago — with a nice color scheme and user-friendly interior — but came with bulletproof shields and flamethrowers. It was only a matter of time before everyone would want one.
That dream finally came true for St. Cloud, Minn. — population 66,000. Courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security, America’s 514th largest city recently became the proud owner of a six-wheeled mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (or MRAP), the suburban American law enforcement equivalent of the EM-50. No, it doesn’t have flamethrowers, but it sports inch-thick armor, has room for 10 assault team members, and weighs over 5 tons curbside. That’s the fact, Jack!
Surely, this can’t be good news for shoplifters, jaywalkers, and double parkers in downtown St. Cloud. As for violent crime, the city’s rate ranks below the national average. But that’s not to say the truck won’t be put to productive use. A department spokesman tells the St. Cloud Times that the surplus Army vehicle will provide support for situations like executing search warrants. Yes, even such routine operations carry some risk. But is an unwieldy $400,000 military vehicle really necessary, or even useful, in making the good people of St. Cloud safer?
The trend of militarizing local law enforcement didn’t begin in Minnesota, and it won’t end there. Over the past decade, thousands of communities large and small have procured highly sophisticated and expensive military-grade equipment in the name of protecting the homeland. Most of it, from aerial drones to bomb-detecting robots to the MRAP assault vehicles, has been heavily subsidized — or paid in full — by the federal government. St. Cloud reportedly put just $3,000 up front. It spent another $10,000 on refitting, which included a sweet “St. Cloud S.W.A.T.” paint job.
The problem isn’t the existence of this equipment, but the sheer volume and cost. St. Cloud was one of eight Minnesota communities to get an MRAP in October, at total taxpayer cost of $3.5 million. Multiply that across 50 states and a decade of post-9/11 Homeland Security spending, and the billions pile up.
Crime rates are dropping nationally, but that downward trend began well before the torrent of high-tech equipment began flowing from Washington. Equally important, successful crime-reduction initiatives are more likely to involve changes in patrol techniques, detective work, and analysis of statistics and trends. If someone can show a positive correlation between owning mine-resistant vehicles and lower crime rates, I’m waiting to see it.
If anything, the overkill is part of a broader trend of public officials pursuing every domestic security initiative they can imagine, whether it’s been proven effective or not. It’s epidemic in the Transportation Security Administration’s aviation practices, whose suspect rationale was laid bare last week when a clerk at a federal appeals court accidentally released unredacted memos acknowledging the TSA is “aware of no one who is currently plotting against any civil aviation targets.”
The question isn’t whether airports should employ security screenings, but to what end and what cost? Why pay for elaborate full-body scans when traditional metal detectors and X-rays can expose all of the weapons in question? As someone next to me in a recent screening line put it, “If the Israelis don’t need me to take off my shoes, why does TSA?”
Don’t expect procedures to change anytime soon. Today, TSA is a large and entrenched organization built around elaborate systems and procedures, with all the personnel necessary to follow them. Any attempt to streamline processes would reduce head count and be met with howls that you are endangering the public. Even with no data to prove it.
The public does seem to be finally catching on to the militarization of American law enforcement. This summer in Concord, N.H., left and right united to protest the City Council’s consideration of a federally funded BearCat armored vehicle. It didn’t help matters that the police chief suggested the 8-ton tactical truck might come in handy to deal with groups like “Free Staters and Occupy New Hampshire [that] present daily challenges.” He later apologized.
After being tabled during the August council meeting, the measure was eventually adopted a month later. Too bad, because there’s a message here: Just because the federal government pays for something, that doesn’t mean it’s free. And just because local police want it, that doesn’t mean it’s needed. Otherwise, St. Cloud would have held out for flamethrowers.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.