LISBON - The practice of donating surplus combat vehicles to police departments has come under criticism from some who are uncomfortable with what they see as the gradual militarization of U.S. law enforcement.
Don't count Columbiana County Sheriff Ray Stone among them, however. His department recently took possession of a donated Caiman, a mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armored-personnel carrier, and he is glad to have it.
"It's a good thing to have. It'll be here for decades, long after I'm gone, and if it saves one life during that time then it's worth the $6,200 transportation fee," Stone said.
From left, EMA Director Luke Newbold, SRT Director Brian McLaughlin, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Bob Zehetnbauer, Chief Deputy Allan Haueter, and Sheriff Ray Stone pose with the county’s new Caiman. (Salem News photo by Deanne Johnson)
The bullet-proof MRAP was developed to also protect U.S. military from roadside bombs, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With one war over and the other winding down, the military has begun donating surplus MRAPs to police departments of all sizes, with the sheriff's office being the latest recipient.
The 12-foot-high, 14-ton air-conditioned $733,000 MRAP can carry six soldiers, with the capability to add seating for two more. Stone envisions the MRAP being used sparingly to transport special response team (SRT) members into hazardous situations involving an active shooter or potentially dangerous drug busts. The MRAP would minimize the exposure of SRT members in those instances by getting them as close as possible to the crime scene.
He said it can also be used to also minimize the danger when retrieving a wounded or injured police officer or citizen during a situation involving an active shooter.
"As you know, anything can happen," Stone said. "I've been in some situations where I wish I had a bullet-proof vehicle to get up close. All we have are bullet-proof vests."
This is the second armored personnel carrier at the disposal of the sheriff's office. In 2005, a federal Department of Homeland Security grant was used to obtain a $280,000 ballistic-engineered armored response (BEAR) tactical vehicle that can hold up to 15 police officers.
In the possession of the Mahoning County Sheriff's Office, the BEAR is supposed to also be available for use by sheriff's offices in Columbiana and Trumbull counties, but Stone said it has not worked out that way.
"In the five years I've been here it's never been in this county, and we've tried (to use it) several times," he said.
The MRAP will give the county its own vehicle they know will be available when needed.
Still, others are troubled by this trend of providing military vehicles and weaponry to police departments, which began more than 20 years ago, according to U.S. Today. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., introduced a bill earlier this year to, among other things, ban the donation of such vehicles as the MRAP, as well as drones, assault weapons and aircraft.
Johnson explained his position in an op-ed in USA Today, which was co-written with activist Michael Shank:
"Something potentially sinister is happening across America, and we should stop and take notice before it changes the character of our country forever. County, city and small-town police departments across the country are now acquiring free military-grade weapons that could possibly be used against the very citizens and taxpayers that not only fund their departments but who the police are charged with protecting ..."
Stone said he can never envision the MRAP being used against law-abiding citizens. "It's not going to happen," he said. "It's a defensive, not offensive, vehicle. The only time it would be offensive is if we're raiding a drug house" where there is a chance they would be met with armed resistance.
The MRAP is available for use by any police department in the county, as well as the county Emergency Management Agency during disasters. Stone said the MRAP can travel safely through up to two feet of water and has 6-by-6 capability.
"It's like the old adage that I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it," he said.