By Jennifer Smith Richards and Stacy St. Clair
CHICAGO — At the first parade following Ron Hain’s 2018 election as Kane County sheriff, a deputy drove up in an 18-ton, 10-foot-tall armor-protected truck once deployed for combat in Iraq.
Obtained for free under a military surplus program two years earlier, the massive vehicle was built to withstand underbody land mine blasts and rocket-propelled grenades. For years, it had projected Kane County’s power and might as it rolled through parades across its jurisdiction.
But on that day, the new sheriff ordered the armored truck back to the garage.
To Hain, it was one thing to use that kind of vehicle for SWAT training or transport. But deploying the truck as a public relations tool sent the wrong message.
“It’s a way of brandishing your police power, and it’s not necessary,” Hain said. “I don’t like it, and I don’t think the public likes it.”
Critics of the 1033 military surplus program, which has been reinvigorated after President Donald Trump lifted restrictions put in place by President Barack Obama, argue that no police officers should look like they are going to war, whether by wearing a military-style uniform, carrying an M16 rifle or driving a combat-ready truck.
“It’s a message of intimidation and terror. It’s the same message that is used overseas when our military occupies someone else’s country,” said Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter. “And what is that message? The message is we will destroy you; we will kill you if you step out of line.”
Many law enforcement officials contend weapons obtained through the surplus program help even the playing field as gun violence has increased across the state. Other supporters of the program note that it has helped cash-strapped police departments obtain many ordinary supplies for the cost of shipping, including generators, filing cabinets and computer keyboards.
Since August 2017, Illinois law enforcement agencies have obtained 1,319 items worth $4.7 million through the program, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of federal data. That includes several armored vehicles like the one Hain took off public display, as well as assault rifles, combat boots, tactical vests that hold ammunition, night vision sniper scopes and “advanced combat optical gunsights.”
Last year, departments across the state procured 875 items, which is more military surplus equipment than they’d received in a single year since 2015.
The program’s popularity among some Illinois agencies comes at a time when the nation’s attention is focused on policing practices following the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as the deaths of other Black people in police custody. Some critics, researchers and activists question whether dressing and equipping local law enforcement as if they were soldiers affects the way officers deal with the public and respond to hostile situations.
The Trump administration, which deployed federal agents in camouflage to Portland, Oregon, to control protesters, has taken the firm position that a militarily equipped police force reduces crime. But several studies have concluded that military gear doesn’t make the public safer and can lead to more violent behavior by police officers.
Last week, several officers from the Chicago Police Department carried long guns through city streets amid fallout from an officer-involved shooting in Englewood. Police also drove an armored vehicle — not obtained from the military — through the West Side to help control angry crowds.
Community activist Darryl Smith watched in dismay that day as police holding assault rifles faced neighborhood residents who sought answers about the recent shooting. It took conversation between neighborhood leaders like Smith and police officers to defuse the situation.
He said he wants the police to have the equipment they need to be safe but that equipment should be used only at the appropriate times and in appropriate ways.
“You can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that there are a lot of guns on the street with multiple-shot drums and clips. The police are outmanned in gun power, so they do need to be armed in certain situations,” Smith said. “But to bring out assault rifles like that in Englewood on Sunday? I thought it was overkill. It sent a message of intimidation and made the situation even more tense.”
A Chicago Police Department spokesman said none of the equipment or weapons used in last week’s unrest was from the military’s surplus program and that those acquisitions are reserved for training only.
Crystal Lake police Chief James Black, whose department does not use the surplus program, said he understands why it is considered an asset to some communities.
“Let’s face it, for a while there, the bad guys had better weapons than we did,” said Black, who is also president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “How do we adequately protect our citizens if we don’t even have the weaponry that’s being used against us? Have there been abuses of that system? I’m sure there have been. But I think if it’s being used properly … if you’re using it for things to keep people safe, it’s a positive.”
A WARRIOR MENTALITY
The military surplus program, run by the Department of Defense, was created in the 1990s amid a period of military downsizing to offer excess equipment to police departments and sheriff’s offices. In Illinois, about 400 of the state’s approximately 875 law-enforcement agencies have participated, federal data shows.
The most-procured items in Illinois — nationally, too — most years are military-grade 5.56-millimeter rifles, known as M16s. Local law enforcement has obtained more than $1.47 million worth of used Defense Department M16s over the life of the program, or about 3,200. Illinois agencies also accepted more than 800 of older M14 rifles. Also popular is a reflex sight to help with rifle aim.
The Chicago Police Department has received 336 M16s and 40 newer M17s since the program’s inception, the Tribune found.
Chicago Police Department spokesman Luis Agostini said the city uses the military surplus program as a cost-effective way to get rifles and other equipment it needs to train officers and that it is not cultivating a military culture.
“Sanctity of life, de-escalation, officer safety and proportional response continue to serve as the cornerstones of the Chicago Police Department’s use of force policy,” Agostini said by email.
One of the most visible types of military equipment is the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle known as an MRAP, similar to Kane County’s armored hand-me-down. An MRAP or similar armored truck has found a home with 19 law enforcement agencies in Illinois. In all, agencies have received 190 military utility trucks over the years, including armored ones.
Last year, the Charleston Police Department received two MRAPs and the Jo Daviess County sheriff’s office got one. Charleston, a Coles County city of about 20,600 people that covers just under 9 square miles, has not used the vehicles, according to the department’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Tribune. Jo Daviess sheriff’s officials did not respond to questions from reporters.
Obama in 2014 banned the military from passing along used MRAPs, as well as bayonets and grenade launchers, after many Americans were stunned to see armored trucks rolling through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, amid protests over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.
When Trump reversed the ban in August 2017, armored vehicles and bayonets began shipping to out to police departments again, though the Defense Department decided not to give out any more grenade launchers.
The U.S. Senate recently voted down a defense spending bill with bipartisan support that would have ended the transfer of some types of military equipment to local law enforcement. Senators settled on a narrower measure that would ban some items, such as drones and lethal grenades, and required better training on de-escalation and constitutional rights. The U.S. House of Representatives passed its own version; if a reconciled bill is approved, it will go to the president.
In some communities — particularly those of color or with little wealth — the military equipment contributes to an atmosphere in which residents feel like enemy combatants of their own government, said Pulley of Black Lives Matter. The antagonistic environment can cause residents’ mental and physical health to suffer.
“It feels horrifying and it produces PTSD in communities,” Pulley said. “The same psychological conditions that we know our soldiers face when they return from war and we know civilians who lived through war face are now in our communities, as well.”
The idea of militarism in law enforcement isn’t just about equipment, academic experts said. It can become a mindset.
“The rhetoric in policing has always been ‘We’re at war’: war against drugs, war on crime, war on this, war on that,” said Matt Petrocelli, a criminal justice professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. “We are telling these officers that they’re warriors. And we’re giving them the apparel of warriors — we’re dressing them as warriors. We’re giving them literally the equipment of warriors.”
David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University who is a former federal prosecutor, said the police “shouldn’t think of themselves and act as an occupying army. They shouldn’t think of themselves as a thin blue line separate from the community. They should view themselves as part of the community.”
Sklansky thinks pulling back from the military surplus program “is one piece of the larger need for police departments to move away from a warrior mentality and toward a guardian mentality.”
“Restricting or even eliminating the 1033 program will not cure all the problems in policing; it will not establish a relationship between the police and the community. It is not a panacea,” he said. “But there are no panaceas in the area of law enforcement.”
Many law enforcement officials argue that the 1033 program isn’t about militarizing local police. Instead, it helps them save money on everyday items and gives officers access to equipment their departments couldn’t otherwise afford.
In the western suburbs, the Forest Park Police Department has obtained roughly 930 items through the program, ranging from a paper shredder and radios to tarps, electrical generators, blood-glucose testers and rope.
Forest Park also received a dozen “chest rigs,” or tactical military vests designed to hold multiple magazine cartridges for combat situations. Officers don’t fill them with ammunition, the department said, but instead pack them as “go vests” with emergency medical supplies like tourniquets.
The data shows the department received a “mine detecting set” valued at more than $35,000 in 2014.
“That item is a metal detector with ground-penetrating radar ability. We’re obviously not checking Madison Street for mines. If you think outside the box, that is a metal detector that we use all the time when looking for evidence,” Hall said. “We’ve gotten tons of things we would have had to pay for that we’ve been able to save money.”
The Kane County sheriff’s office estimates it has saved several hundred thousand dollars on mundane items such as laser printers, generators and warehouse lifts over the years.
Late last year, it procured a used forklift from a Navy base in Norfolk, saving the department about $15,000. Officials initially planned to use it for inmate training at the local jail and other warehouse use, but when the pandemic hit and the sheriff’s garage became the clearinghouse for the entire county’s supply of protective personal equipment, the forklift became invaluable to that mission as well.
Lt. David Wolf, who has overseen Program 1033 procurement for the sheriff’s office for nearly a decade, said he and his staff scour the surplus website on a weekly basis, looking for anything that can save the county money. His department, for example, has snagged gardening tools to use in the inmate garden.
“These are surplus items from military bases, which are really their own little cities,” Wolf said. “So anything you would find or need in a city, you can probably find there.”
The Round Lake Park Police Department got a snowmobile through a military surplus program several years ago, police Chief George Filenko said. There’s a retirement community within the jurisdiction with residents who needed help during a storm.
“The first time we had to use it, we put one of our officers who was a trained snowmobiler and a paramedic on it and put them out there. They made over a dozen rescues that day,” Filenko said.
‘NOT A BELIEVER’
When contacted by Tribune reporters, Illinois agencies with mine-resistant trucks said they kept no records on vehicle use that would show when agencies deployed them.
The Rockford Police Department confirmed it has two MRAPs, though an older one isn’t in use. Rockford responded to a request for records by listing the types of occasions when it might use an armored vehicle: some SWAT situations, to rescue residents in floods, for display at community events and parades.
This year, for example, Rockford police sent an MRAP to a hostage situation at a bank, where officers on the scene used it as protection. The truck — painted blue, with “RESCUE” lettered on it — also was used in a domestic violence incident so officers could safely get close to the home.
Though MRAPs were staged and ready to use in June during protests over the killing of George Floyd by police, they weren’t deployed, said John Pozzi, a retired deputy chief who now oversees military surplus procurement at Rockford.
Pozzi said that in some situations the truck “reduces the need for violence.”
“It is an intimidating-looking vehicle,” Pozzi said. “Sometimes that show of equipment, I don’t want to call it a show of force, but the show of equipment actually facilitates a de-escalation.”
In Kane County, a mine-resistant personnel carrier obtained through the surplus program was put into use after gunshots rang out last year at the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse in Aurora. The Kane County sheriff’s office, one of many area agencies providing assistance, loaded deputies into the armored Mamba, which was built in South Africa in the late 1980s.
But the vehicle never made it to the Pratt warehouse, where a gunman killed five co-workers and wounded several officers before dying in a standoff. It broke down en route, leaving the deputies stranded and unable to help with the mass shooting.
“One of the reasons I’m not a believer of the military vehicles is because, quite often, they’re passed down to law enforcement after 20 or 30 years of military life and they’re unreliable,” Hain said.
The department stopped procuring the military-specific M16 rifles, too, for similar reasons. As popular as the rifles are, they also can cost money once they’ve been delivered because they need upgrades and repairs to use as police rifles.
“They’re not modern weapons coming to us straight out of Afghanistan. Most, if not all of them, were made in the Vietnam era,” said Tom Hall, the Forest Park police sergeant who is in charge of monitoring the lists of available supplies.
Filenko, the Round Lake Park police chief, said the department once sent back a remote-controlled robot for removing explosive devices because it had been roughed up in combat.
“It’s kind of like buying something on eBay and when you get it it’s not what you expect,” Filenko said.
The Kane County sheriff’s office spent $5,000 to repair the Mamba after it broke down but has stopped relying on the vehicle for critical missions. Since the Pratt shooting, the Mamba has been used for SWAT training and not much else, Hain said.
“I always joke around that I want to pour a cement pad out in front of the office and let it be a playground or a monument,” Hain said. “These old military vehicles are, by and large, useless.”
The department has now purchased a new armored personnel carrier designed specifically for law enforcement use. The BearCat, which cost more than $300,000, has the technology to handle 21st-century necessities such as laptops and phone chargers. Unlike the Mamba’s narrow, V-shaped design, the BearCat’s rectangular-shaped hull is large enough to fit a stretcher and more than one paramedic if someone needs to be extracted from a violent scene or hostage situation.
During the unrest following Floyd’s death earlier this year, the BearCat was positioned behind a line of officers dressed in riot gear as they formed a barricade to stop looting and violence from spreading further down Aurora’s main street.
At one point, someone fired a gun at the BearCat, hitting the passenger side of the windshield. The bullet did not break through the resistant glass, which protected a paramedic seated there from potential injury.
Though some agencies argue that military surplus trucks can help with crowd control during times of unrest, critics of the program say such situations are exactly when a tank-type vehicle should not be sent to the scene.
“This movement toward armored vehicles for crowd control — no, no, no. Absolutely not. There’s only a very few times in American history when you can say we needed armored vehicles to control this situation,” said Petrocelli, the Southern Illinois professor. “You roll an armored vehicle into a neighborhood, that’s about as militaristic as you can get.”
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