WOODSTOCK – The armored behemoth in front of the McHenry County Sheriff's garage in Hartland Township dwarfs the deputies standing watch over it.
If the vehicle's imposing 9-foot height and armor-plated 40-ton weight doesn't reveal its original intent, its desert khaki paint job does. The MRAP, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, was designed to protect troops on the battlefield from land mines and improvised explosive devices. It will become part of the arsenal of the sheriff's office SWAT team, once the garage staff is through modifying it for its new role.
The sheriff's office is one of the latest law enforcement agencies nationwide to acquire such a vehicle through an obscure government surplus program that has put military vehicles, weapons and other surplus into the hands of law enforcement agencies large and small, at little to no cost. It's a program that law enforcement officials laud and civil liberties activists are growing to loathe.
To Undersheriff Andy Zinke, having a vehicle that can protect officers and rescue civilians just makes sense for the sheriff's office, which is the only McHenry County agency that maintains a SWAT team.
"I think we need to have one because we're the [SWAT] rescue department for the whole county," Zinke said.
But McHenry County is a microcosm of the trend that opponents label "police militarization." At about the same time that McHenry County received an MRAP to serve a county of 308,000 residents, so did the police department of Spring Grove, population 5,800.
Police departments have not made a convincing case as to why they need equipment meant for war, said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Critics sum up their problem succinctly: To them, police departments start acquiring military equipment and adopting military tactics when they start seeing their communities as a battlefield, and its citizens as an enemy.
"The notion that a small police force needs to have this kind of overwhelming firepower to use against its citizenry distances people from the police force that is supposed to protect the citizenry," Yohnka said.
Although the sheriff's office insists the MRAP, like the SWAT team, will be used for only the most extreme situations, the nationwide trend has been quite the contrary, according to blogger and author Radley Balko. His latest book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," concludes that the majority of SWAT raids are used against nonviolent offenders.
"This sort of force was once reserved as the last option to defuse a dangerous situation. It's increasingly used as the first option to apprehend people who aren't dangerous at all," Balko wrote.
Uncle Sam's used cars and guns
When it comes to a MRAP, law enforcement can't beat the price.
McHenry County's has a value of $733,000, but it cost the sheriff's office $1,975 to pick it up in Texas and drive it back, according to records. Spring Grove had its MRAP transported from Texas at a cost of about $4,000, which was paid for through drug asset forfeitures, Chief Tom Sanders said.
Having an armored vehicle is nothing new for the sheriff's office. When ready for the streets, its MRAP will replace the Mobile Armored Rescue Vehicle, or MARV, that the sheriff's office obtained a decade ago at a cost of $2,500, again through military surplus.
Police departments now have a multitude of programs that allow them to acquire gear they couldn't afford before, and have allowed small departments which otherwise couldn't afford them to create and fund SWAT teams.
McHenry County acquired its MRAP through the Law Enforcement Support Office program, which was created by Congress in the early 1990s to transfer excess Department of Defense equipment for use in drug enforcement activities. Congress expanded the program in 1997 to allow departments to acquire equipment for most law enforcement purposes.
The sheriff's office and county government have acquired about $2.5 million in equipment through the program, including cold-weather gear and life jackets for the office's Fox River marine unit and two Humvees. Although the sheriff's office has not received weapons through the program, the Spring Grove police department acquired eight M-16 rifles to help equip its staff of 14 full- and part-time officers.
Spring Grove does not have a SWAT team – McHenry County's police departments rely on either the sheriff's office or the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, a cooperative agency which has a full-time SWAT team and a MRAP of its own. Crystal Lake, which used to have its own team, disbanded it earlier this year to join NIPAS, which has better resources, Deputy Chief Derek Hyrkas said.
Sanders defended his acquisition of a MRAP, and said he did not get a lot of pushback when he advised village board members of his intentions. While he conceded that he "hasn't decided what to do with it yet," he said it gives the village a viable response option to serve a dangerous warrant, or to respond to a catastrophic event similar to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Spring Grove had two violent crimes in 2011 and one in 2012, the most recent year of data available by the FBI. It was ranked one of the 50 safest cities in Illinois earlier this year by SafeWise, a nationwide home security company.
"The problem is that there is all kinds of violence going on, and I think we have to be prepared for it. They made [a MRAP] available to us. It's great piece of equipment. My hope is that we never have to use it," Sanders said.
Critics allege, backed by statistics, that police departments are finding ways to use SWAT teams that were never intended, goaded on to a significant degree by the influx of cool equipment. What's more, the number of raids has skyrocketed while violent crime rates have dropped nationwide to their lowest ebb in a generation.
"I don't mean to be flippant, but once you have a tool that's in your arsenal, you are more likely to use it. It's the old line – once you have a hammer, you start seeing everything as a nail," Yohnka said.
More gear, more raids
Peter Kraska, a criminology professor at Eastern Kentucky University, published a dual set of studies in the 1990s chronicling the proliferation of SWAT teams. He estimated that by the end of the 20th century, about 90 percent of police departments in cities with more than 50,000 people had SWAT teams. By 2007, more than 80 percent of police departments with between 25,000 and 50,000 people had them.
The number of SWAT raids has likewise jumped, from a few thousand in the early 1980s to at least 50,000 – or more than 100 a day – by 2005. Many of these raids are "no-knock" raids, meaning police can force entry without announcing themselves. A succession of U.S. Supreme Court rulings since the mid-1960s have greatly expanded police power to serve warrants with no warning, by default curtailing the protections against unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
Their mission has crept, too. While SWAT – a concept created and implemented by former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates – was originally intended to be employed in nothing short of violent civil unrest and barricaded gunmen, departments are using them more often than not for nonviolent offenders, and in some circumstances, routine enforcement.
Balko has tracked the trend of using SWAT teams for regular policing. The Dallas SWAT team was used to break up poker games. In Maricopa County, Arizona, a SWAT team employed a tank in a raid to investigate an allegation of illegal cockfighting. SWAT commandos were deployed to a New Haven, Connecticut, bar in 2010 suspected of serving underage drinkers. In 2010, they raided Orlando barber shops looking for guns and drugs, but in the end only made 37 arrests for "barbering without a license."
"If using a SWAT team to make sure a bar isn't serving 19-year-olds is a reasonable use of force, it's hard to imagine what wouldn't be," Balko wrote.
Statistics collected in one state offer a glimpse into how SWAT's mission has expanded over the years.
Maryland police departments must release statistics regarding SWAT deployment, in response to a highly-publicized mistaken drug raid on a small-town mayor in which police shot and killed his two black Labrador retrievers. In 2012, police statewide averaged 4 1/2 raids a day, two-thirds of them using forced entry. About half of these raids were for nonviolent offenders, mostly to serve search warrants on drug offenders. About one-third of the raids resulted in no arrests.
Utah earlier this year became the second state to mandate that police keep a tally of SWAT raids.
Such raids, especially ones involving drugs, can be lucrative for police departments and local governments. Civil asset-forfeiture laws allow police to seize any item that can be claimed was acquired by criminal activity. What's more, federal funding from the "war on drugs" and now the "war on terror" have ramped up police departments' ability to access military vehicles and weapons, and to critics, the desire to use them.
The Pentagon's 1033 Program from which the Law Enforcement Support Office acquires its gear for distribution, has exploded since Sept. 11, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The program, which in addition to guns and armored personnel carriers has donated helicopters and grenade launchers to police departments, gave away a record $500 million in gear in fiscal year 2011, and $449 million in 2013, according to records. The Pentagon temporarily halted the program in 2012, after an investigation by the Arizona Republic revealed that a sheriff's office had been giving gear to nonpolice agencies and had planned to sell some at auction.
The Sept. 11 attacks opened another funding pipeline through Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism grants. A 2011 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the department since 2001 has given out more than $37 billion to law enforcement, much of which was spent on military-grade weaponry.
McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren dismisses the idea that his team could ever be employed for routine policing or arresting nonviolent offenders.
The county's SWAT team is called out an average of once a month, Nygren said. It is most frequently employed to serve high-risk warrants on suspects whom credible intelligence indicates are armed and dangerous. Before serving a warrant, the department relies on a 12-point assessment to determine whether the SWAT team is needed – if the score is low, the SWAT team stays home.
In obviously dangerous situations with no warning, such as an April 2013 incident in which a Wonder Lake man barricaded himself in his home with a shotgun, and a 2011 standoff in Cary, the SWAT team, and MARV, roll. The suspects in both instances surrendered and no one was hurt.
Other McHenry County police departments are unlikely to form their own SWAT teams, given that they have the sheriff's office and the NIPAS agency to call on. But gear, such as Spring Grove's new MRAP, is another story.
Nygren and Sanders, the Spring Grove chief, said the village's MRAP could be a spare in case of a significant crisis. Sanders also said that it would be available for any other area police agency that needs it.
Nygren called his MRAP a "rescue vehicle" rather than an offensive weapon, which will protect police officers and evacuate residents to safety if need be. And as for MARV, Nygren said he intends to give it to another police department that wants it.
Nygren said he wants no part of using the SWAT team, and the MRAP or any other military issue, for anything other than dire emergency.
"There's nothing I'd oppose more than a police state. One of the reasons we have decentralized law enforcement ... is because we are a freedom-loving people, and we don't want occupying armies," Nygren said. "That's not us. We do not promote anything that would resemble anything like that at all."
But Yohnka said police departments need to have a serious conversation about whether they even need such items to begin with. They can easily acquire them, he said, but they have to ask themselves whether they should.
"There's a disturbing trend of not only the use, but the overuse, of this kind of stuff," he said. "You begin to expand the definition of where it can be used, and any threat or perceived threat is justified to use this overwhelming force."