McHenry County Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Ellis and the rest of his SWAT team were on edge as they surrounded the Holiday Hills home of Scott Peters.
Peters had just seriously wounded two deputies responding to a domestic disturbance call on the morning of Oct. 16. When Ellis learned that Peters had an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, he realized that the armored Humvee that the SWAT team responded with may be inadequate, and the area did not afford his officers decent cover. He decided to call out the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected military vehicle that the sheriff’s office had acquired only months prior through a controversial government-surplus program for law enforcement.
The MRAP proved useful that day, providing cover for officers on the scene and safely swapping out personnel, Ellis said. Peters did not barricade himself, but fled into the woods and was arrested 16 hours later and six miles away without hurting anybody else.
“It was a huge sense of relief to our guys once the MRAP got to the scene, because they could then have effective cover and still be in proximity of the house,” Ellis said.
The sheriff’s office got its MRAP at the same time that the Spring Grove Police Department got one through the same surplus program. For Village President Mark Eisenberg, his sense of relief came in March when they got rid of it.
Eisenberg had no idea that Police Chief Tom Sanders acquired an MRAP until he saw the 40-ton machine parked behind village hall. Eisenberg quickly concluded that it had no place in the town of 5,800 people.
The Ogle County Sheriff's Office was looking for an MRAP of its own, and has since taken custody of it.
“It takes a lot of training and cash for something we completely don’t have a need for. It’s an expense we agreed wasn’t necessary and moved on,” Eisenberg said.
Both Eisenberg and the McHenry County Board in charge of the sheriff’s office budget have since put measures in place requiring law enforcement to get permission before acquiring surplus that will result in increased costs. And with an executive order signed last week by President Obama, police departments nationwide will have a harder time acquiring military vehicles and weapons.
Concerns over whether civilian law enforcement should have access to military vehicles and weapons is prompting other governments nationwide to impose controls or bans of their own.
Guns and gear
The county’s MRAP is only one item on a long list of surplus acquired by police departments through a federal program under increased scrutiny in the wake of police in Ferguson, Missouri, meeting unrest last year with military gear, weapons and vehicles.
Congress created the Law Enforcement Support Office in the early 1990s to transfer excess Department of Defense equipment for use in local drug-enforcement activities. Now known as the 1033 Program, it was expanded in 1997 to allow local police departments to acquire equipment for most law enforcement purposes at little or no cost.
Critics have blamed 1033 and similar programs, along with drug-asset forfeiture laws that allow small police departments to afford and maintain SWAT teams and specialized gear, for what they call the ongoing “militarization” of America’s law enforcement. They argue that dressing and equipping police officers like soldiers makes officers look at the communities they are supposed to protect and serve as enemy territory.
The 1033 Program since its creation has transferred more than $5.4 billion in property, from socks and office supplies to rifles and armored personnel carriers, to more than 8,000 participating law-enforcement agencies, according to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency that administers it. More than $980 million worth of property was transferred in 2014 alone.
Although only about 5 percent is weapons and combat vehicles, according to the agency, 5 percent of $5.4 billion still buys a lot. And with the Iraq War over and the U.S. war in Afghanistan winding down, there is a lot of military surplus to be had.
Pressed by calls for greater transparency, the DLA last November started listing tactical gear, such as firearms, scopes and armored vehicles, by individual department, rather than only listing them by the county in which the department is located. Fifteen McHenry County law-enforcement agencies have received military weapons under the 1033 Program over the past decade, according to updated federal records, which tracks weapons as long as they are in departments’ custody.
The sheriff’s office obtained 26 M-16 rifles in 2006, two .45-caliber handguns, and five older M-14 rifles, which are chambered in a larger caliber and commonly used as sniper weapons.
The McHenry city police department in 2012 obtained 40 M-16 rifles for its force of 46 officers, because it was much cheaper to upgrade surplus than to buy new, Deputy Chief John Birk said. Before that, the city only had a handful of M-16 rifles, which had to be signed over from officer to officer.
“If any piece of equipment is shared, it’s harder for the accountability, care and maintenance,” Birk said.
Smaller departments have not let their size limit them. Island Lake acquired 36 firearms between 2005 and 2012: 14 each of the M-16s and .45-caliber handguns, five M-14s, and three 12-gauge shotguns. Fox Lake Police acquired 24 .45-caliber handguns, as well as seven M-16s and three M-14s. Fox Lake keeps the handguns as a backup in case they have a problem, such as a recall, with their issued .40-caliber handguns, Lt. Joe Gliniewicz said.
The Crystal Lake Police Department obtained 10 M-16s in 2008, but is in the process of transferring them to another Chicago-area police department, Deputy Chief Derek Hyrkas said – the transfer is awaiting approval by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Three M-16s were obtained in 2006 by the Crystal Lake Park District Police Department.
While LESO only tracks non-weapon surplus for one year, records show that local and state agencies have acquired piles of it.
The tiny police department of McCullom Lake obtained one M-16 through the program last year. But it also acquired almost $80,000 in medical equipment, and two motorized carts and a scooter totaling about $7,500. McHenry likewise obtained first-aid kits and other lifesaving gear for each of its officers.
The Spring Grove Police Department seeks out surplus not just for itself but for other village departments such as public works – its acquisitions include dump trucks, all-terrain vehicles, a tractor, a forklift, a cargo trailer and a forklift trailer.
A number of police acquisitions over the past year are more unusual.
Six downstate police departments acquired bayonets, which for some reason are tracked as general issue, despite the fact that they are battlefield weapons designed for hand-to-hand combat. Bayonets are now forbidden under Obama's executive order.
The police departments of Naperville and Plainfield obtained detectors for chemical weapons. Besides acquiring 16 bayonets, the Forest Park Police Department also obtained a landmine detector valued at $35,155. Bomb-disposal robots worth $10,000 each were en vogue in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, where three municipal police departments asked for and got them.
The police department of Athens, a town of 1,726 people north of Springfield, got a cargo sling used to carry supplies by military helicopter. Three police departments acquired bags for parachutes while a fourth received drag parachutes used to extract cargo pallets from low-flying aircraft. Another four small-town police departments, the smallest of which has only 486 residents, received camouflage netting systems designed to scatter enemy radar.
Tanks, but no tanks
Of all the military weapons headed to police departments, it’s battlefield vehicles like MRAPs that are raising the most concerns with civil-liberties groups.
Sixteen police departments statewide have MRAPs courtesy of the 1033 Program, from the Chicago Police Department to the police departments of tiny Winthrop Harbor, population 6,472, and downstate West Frankfort, population 8,182. Many other police departments have smaller tactical vehicles such as armored Humvees. The sheriff’s offices of Lake, Adams, Jo Daviess and Kane counties have armored trucks and “tactical wheeled vehicles,” as do the municipal departments of Rockford and DeKalb, according to records.
The decision by Spring Grove and the McHenry County Board to introduce oversight was not rooted in ethical concerns, but economic ones. “Free” surplus comes with maintenance, training and insurance costs, especially for vehicles. But concerns over police militarization have prompted efforts elsewhere to limit police departments’ ability to partake in the 1033 Program.
Obama's executive order forbids federal agencies from giving police departments tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonets, certain camouflage uniforms, weapons chambered in .50-caliber or higher, and weaponized vehicles or aircraft.
Wheeled vehicles such as MRAPs and Humvees, as well as assault rifles and riot gear, are still obtainable, but with oversight. A law enforcement agency must have the permission of its supervising civilian government, and must demonstrate a "clear and persuasive" need. The order also mandates law enforcement to have proper training, and keep records of when the equipment is used and for what purpose.
However, there's a loophole, and it's a big one.
The order only applies to government issue – law enforcement can still buy said items from private vendors. Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given billions in grants to law-enforcement agencies to help acquire such gear. It gave out $1.6 billion in 2013, or about three times the value of surplus gear handed out that year under the 1033 Program.
But that loophole could be closed at the state level – a number of states have enacted or proposed laws aimed at curbing police militarization.
A new Montana law closes the loophole and forbids law enforcement agencies from acquiring combat vehicles or drones through both military surplus and federal grants. New Jersey lawmakers earlier this year passed a law forbidding them from acquiring military weapons and combat vehicles through the 1033 Program without the consent of their local governments.
Similar proposals are working their way through legislatures in California, Nevada, Washington, Tennessee, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to the Tenth Amendment Center, a group that encourages states to nullify federal laws that it alleges exceed the federal government’s constitutional authority.
Tennessee's proposed law goes so far as to require law enforcement agencies to return all 1033 Program surplus. Nevada’s legislation also seeks to limit the deployment of SWAT teams to true life-or-death situations in which regular police response would be inadequate. Statistics over the years have shown that the number and use of SWAT teams has exploded, and that they are most often used to serve warrants on nonviolent individuals.
'A great sense of comfort'
The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office is hardly new to the world of military vehicles.
The $733,000 MRAP it acquired last year at a cost of only $1,975 replaced its decade-old Mobile Armored Rescue Vehicle, or MARV. Both MARV and the MRAP were acquired under former Sheriff Keith Nygren – Sheriff Bill Prim took office last December.
McHenry County Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Ellis said he learned the value of having such a vehicle when the county SWAT team helped respond to a barricaded gunman at a house in Sharon, Wisconsin in 2010 – he was inside MARV listening to the gunman’s bullets pinging off its armor. The only person injured in the 13-hour standoff was the gunman, who shot himself in the stomach and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
“It was a great sense of comfort knowing I was safe in there,” Ellis said.
The county’s SWAT team does not roll out unless a stringent set of guidelines is met, such as responding to events that regular police cannot handle, or serving high-risk warrants on suspects whom credible intelligence indicates are armed and dangerous. Ellis, who has served 14 years with the SWAT team and the last five as a supervisor, said his department looks at its MRAP as an evacuation vehicle rather than a combat vehicle.
A similar policy exists for the SWAT team that Ogle County maintains, Sheriff Brian VanVickle said. His office is in the process of converting Spring Grove's MRAP for police use.
Besides an active-shooter situation, VanVickle said last winter’s snowstorms, and regular flooding of the Rock River that runs through the county, prompted the decision to get an MRAP. Several senior citizens trapped by major snowfall last winter had to be rescued by snowmobile, which exposed them to the cold.
Once the MRAP is ready, it will be deployed only with the approval of the sheriff or chief deputy, VanVickle said. Its drivers received specialized training from the Army in its use.
“At the end of the day we want all first responders to go out safe, and this vehicle will get rolled out only for special response,” VanVickle said. “I want my SWAT team to be safe and provide every bit of protection we can afford them, and this is a great opportunity for us.”
Had Holiday Hills shooter Scott Peters decided to stay and fight it out, Ellis said, things could have turned out much worse without the MRAP.
“If he had decided he was going to [stay and] start putting rounds down on us, it wouldn’t have been pretty. It would have been hard for SWAT officers to take cover from his fire or return fire safely,” Ellis said.
A jury last month found Peters guilty of 15 counts, including seven counts of attempted murder of a police officer. He will be sentenced on June 25, and stands to spend the rest of his life in prison. The two deputies he shot, Dwight Maness and Khalia Satkiewicz, are still recovering from their wounds.
Reaction to Obama's order followed predictable lines.
Groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police allege that the ban and the thinking behind it is politicizing officers' safety. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which has long opposed police militarization, hailed the ban as a "critical step" toward rebuilding trust between the police and the public.
"Now, the federal government will no longer be permitted to supply police departments with military weapons and vehicles designed for the battlefield. Grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons, armored vehicles – this equipment never belonged in our neighborhoods," legislative counsel Kanya Bennett said.