An asset for area law enforcement, military gear has its critics, too


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CHAMPAIGN — As police take more heat about the heavier and more imposing weapons they carry, area law enforcement agencies say they deploy SWAT teams in only the most dangerous of circumstances and are mindful about when they send out officers in military-style gear.

Images of rifle-toting police officers atop heavily armored vehicles dominated the 24-hour news channels through August as protesters in Ferguson, Mo., took to the streets. The constant coverage pushed forward a conversation across the country about how police departments outfit themselves and where they are getting their gear.

But a glance at the numbers locally shows law enforcement in Champaign County deploy SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams in limited sets of circumstances, and they are operating on relatively thin budgets to purchase equipment and train their officers.

In Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles' opinion, it's a "shockingly low" budget that does not allow departments to pay for large vehicles, the likes of which Missouri law enforcement agencies positioned on the streets of Ferguson. Surles helps oversee the county's Metro SWAT team, which six departments share.

That SWAT team, which is responsible for covering all of Champaign County except for the city of Champaign (which has its own team) will operate this year on a $25,000 budget. That's more than the past few years — Surles said the unit had been operating with a bit under $20,000 for at least four years prior to that.

The Metro SWAT team probably will not spend its whole budget, he said, and the roughly $5,000 will be banked for future maintenance needs. That could be sooner rather than later: The countywide SWAT team uses a 1986 armored truck, bought from Brinks when the courier service took it out of service.

"We're fairly spartan in our purchases," Surles said.

The county will have a new vehicle available soon — the Champaign County sheriff's office this year received a demilitarized Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle that it is currently modifying for use in police activities. The county acquired the vehicle, free of charge, through the state's Law Enforcement Support Office, which distributes surplus military property to state police agencies.

The vehicle, — a 35,000-pound, 10-foot-high, 21-foot-long behemoth — is a hand-me-down from the waning wars in the Middle East. Local police agencies around the country can request surplus military gear through a federal program offered by the Department of Defense.

The Champaign County sheriff's office has received firearms through the program: M-16 and M-4 rifles that had their fully-automatic capability stripped. Those rifles were distributed to patrol officers who had not already purchased their own, said Deputy Sheriff Allen Jones.

It has been more than 10 years since the Champaign Police Department received any equipment through the military surplus program. In the early 2000s, it received rifles, some of which are only used in honor guard ceremonies, said Deputy Chief Joe Gallo. Champaign police registered for the program through the state's Law Enforcement Support Office in October 2013, he said, but it has not received any equipment since then.

Jones said the sheriff's department does not yet have a specific plan for the MRAP armored vehicle — that's something they are working on, and it will be a while before the vehicle is ready for the streets anyway.

"There's no rush to get this thing going," Jones said. "It hasn't been ironed out. Sheriff (Dan) Walsh intends to come up with a plan as to when and how we might use the equipment."

MRAPs were among the vehicles displayed in Ferguson, Mo., and critics of the Department of Defense military surplus program point to the armored trucks as a symbol of the militarization of local police. Jones said that is something the department was sensitive to.

"How it looks has always been something we've talked about," Jones said. "It's not intended to be a great offensive machine, but it's certainly there to protect our people."

That's the thrust of a scathing report released this summer by the national chapter of American Civil Liberties Union titled "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing." An estimated 500 local police agencies have received MRAP vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs, according to the report.

The report includes SWAT horror stories, like one of a mother who was killed while holding her infant son in a SWAT raid, a toddler who came out of a raid in a medically-induced coma and an Iraq war veteran who was shot 22 times and killed.

"Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies," the report says.

The Champaign County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has not taken such a strong stance. President Carol Spindel said the group is in the very early stages of conversations with local police agencies, but "this is a subject of concern for us."

"We think it's very important to continue that dialogue, and we look forward to continuing it in the future," Spindel said.

The Champaign Police Department's SWAT team has a Lenco Bearcat — reminiscent of a Humvee-type vehicle, but designed more specifically for SWAT team transportation and operations. The department purchased the vehicle with a grant in 2001, Gallo said.

But the bulk of Champaign's $30,411 SWAT budget has gone toward training its 18 officers, updating and maintaining weapons and purchasing bulletproof vests and other equipment, Gallo said.

Jim Page, a longtime Urbana police officer who now runs the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, explains that armored vehicles, as imposing as they may look, are not meant to impose. The increase in their use is related instead to an "increase in the desire to confront bad guys more safely," he said.

Imagine an armed subject barricaded inside a home, for example. Instead of trying to communicate with that person from a safe distance, Page explained, a negotiator in an armored truck can drive right up to the front door and have a conversation.

That's largely how Champaign has used its armored truck, Gallo said.

"When you have an armored vehicle, you can drive right up in front of that house and do different things," he said.

A lot of the armored trucks available to police agencies were purchased through federal programs or with federal grants. That money went through a bit of a surge after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, when the Department of Homeland Security wanted local and state agencies to be prepared for both terrorism-type incidents and natural disasters.

That money has since dried up a bit, Page said.

"The big capital money for stuff, buying big vehicles, that sort of thing is pretty much gone," Page said.

The focus, he said, has changed away from buying equipment to planning and training. That's where his Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System comes in — ILEAS coordinates exactly those kinds of activities among many different police agencies throughout the state.

ILEAS itself has nine Bearcats that it has stashed away at local police departments in different state regions so they are ready to go in case of emergency. When ILEAS does not need them, Page said, they are available for the local departments to use.

ILEAS also maintains a "mobile field force," which is a team comprising officers from all over the state who are available to respond to natural disasters or other large-scale emergencies. Nearly 300 officers were assembled for a high-profile deployment in 2012 to assist the Chicago Police Department when that city hosted the NATO Summit and its associated protests.

That makes Page an expert on crowd control, and he saw the coverage of the Ferguson protests, too. His frustration is evident, but he would not offer an opinion because he was not there.

"Was it used appropriately in Ferguson? I'm not commenting," Page said.