National Security

What’s With All the Tanks? Local Police Departments and Federal Grants

By T.B. Lefever: 

The use of hand-me-down armored trucks, or MRAPs, by local police has been a hot button issue in recent years.  While the case law enabling the transaction was signed into law by President Bill Clinton back in 1996, it has seen its most prominent use in the years following the Iraq War.  Following the major ground invasion and occupation phase of the war, the US Department of Defense found itself in the position of dealing with a surplus of $250,000+ vehicles and nothing to do with them.  Thus, the decades old 1033 Program hit peak popularity in the form of the DOD dolling out armored vehicles, small arms, sandbags, sleeping bags, flashlights, etc. to local and state agencies requesting them.  The “tanks” people often speak of are used in SWAT operations to protect officers from barricaded gunmen, explosives, and incidents of civil unrest like we’ve seen all over the country in the past few years.  The machine gun turrets affixed to the roof of these MRAPs in wartime are modified to launch tear gas canisters or removed from the vehicle altogether once they are acquired by local police.  In a sense, you could say they are “de-militarized” for police use.

While my department does not own an MRAP, we are part of a regional SWAT coalition comprised of four metro departments that does.  As a hostage negotiator, I have been inside of the vehicle. It is impressive.  Affixed with a background noise eliminating microphone on the outside, I can negotiate with an armed hostage taker or suicidal person from a bullet proof and bomb resistant safe place.  Our coalition does not have a bomb squad so we rely on the county agency nearest to us who has deeper pockets and jurisdiction over a larger land area and population.  I cannot really criticize the fact that we aren’t investing in the training, equipment, and infrastructure to get our own bomb squad when we already have access to one.  Despite having effective resources available to us, every patrol officer knows that they are the tip of the spear and will take the brunt of the responsibility to neutralize or contain threats before SWAT and Bomb Squad arrive.  It should also be noted that although there are many advantages to having shiny new toys, there are pros and cons to taking Federal Grants.

On one hand, the Federal Government can provide assets to police departments that they would never be able to afford otherwise. If these pieces of equipment save one life, whether it be that of an officer or a civilian, it is hard for me to formulate a good argument against it.  I personally resent the “Towns Don’t Need Tanks” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attack campaign against the military surplus program because it misrepresents the use of the equipment as if local police are rolling through the streets like It is Tiananmen Square circa 1989 in small town USA.  What about the civil liberties of police officers? If there is an apparatus to keep us safer when confronting dangerous men, we deserve to utilize it.

As I have mentioned in other articles, there are concerted efforts being undertaken to federalize local police agencies.  Being that there is no such thing as a “free lunch” when it comes to federal grants, how should local agencies move forward when presented with situations where they can potentially get their hands on much needed equipment, money to pay for overtime hours, etc.?  For one, agencies should never become dependent on the Fed’s dollars to the point that they cannot operate without it.  We have seen the Obama Administration effectively take over supervision of local PD’s by filing civil rights violations against them through the Department of Justice.  When an agency buries itself in federal money and cannot wane itself off, no adverse court ruling regarding these DOJ charges is needed for them to be at the mercy of the Federal government.  The Fed can ultimately leverage them to accept Federal supervision at the risk of losing the funding they need to keep the wheels turning.  I am a big proponent of local agencies retaining their autonomy.  A responsibly run department treats grants as an extra bonus as to not abuse them.

As we press forward into the future, we’ll continue to see the use of technologies that push the boundaries of what organizations like the ACLU deem acceptable.  Recently, the Dallas PD SWAT team met some criticism after successfully ending the killings of four of their own by blowing up the gunman with a bomb attached to a SWAT robot.  I’ve heard the idea of drones being utilized to keep LEO’s out of harm’s way in these types of situations as well. Whatever the future brings, I hope “police watchdog groups” will pay more attention to the macro issues such as federal overreach and dwindling of states’ rights when it comes to our police agencies and less attention to isolated micro issues.  The world can be a dangerous place and the police may have to meet that danger with intimidating and effective displays of force at times.

T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.


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