On Veterans Day, Columbia, South Carolina became the latest of about 500 communities nationwide to add a military grade armored vehicle to its police force. The para-military vehicle with a "U.N. blue" custom paint job seats nine people, has an armable turret, and costs $658,000. The vehicle made its way to the department for free through the Department of Defense's 1033 excess property program. The tank is bullet proof, features a land mine resistant frame, and a mount rack suited for a 50 caliber machine gun.
The police department says the MRAP – short for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle – will help protect SWAT team officers and the general public during dangerous confrontations. It's bulletproof, armored, and, as the name suggests, can even resist landmine explosions. A local body shop painted the vehicle for free.
The question, of course, is why a civilian police force needs or should have a military grade armored and armable vehicle. Such a "tool" makes the government much, much more physically powerful than American citizens, increasing the risk of abuse, and the damage to civilians when that abuse occurs.
This occurs at a time when people are growing more and more skeptical of police actions, and when more and more attention is being brought to abuses. These abuses have included shooting people unnecessarily, and even killing unaggressive dogs in houses they had no right to be in. Crime rates in America have been steadily dropping for many years now, and the chance of a situation arising in which the vehicle is actually necessary are slim.
Though the vehicle was "free" to the citizens of Columbia, they were purchased by taxpayer money. 500 surplus military vehicles costing $658,000 each adds up to $329 million dollars of surplus DoD spending (and therefore taxing) on vehicles which are so unnecessary to the military they are being given away to American cities. Though this wouldn't fix the debt, it is yet another multi-million dollar piece of wasteful spending by the American federal government.
The most troubling aspect of the situation, though, is the reason for obtaining such a vehicle. Another town which recently obtained federal funding for a military armored vehicle – though this one was through the Department of Homeland Security – was Concord, New Hampshire. When the ACLU and New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union submitted a public records request, they discovered that groups like the Free State Project and Occupy New Hampshire had been cited as domestic terror threats, and their presence was listed as a reason the police department needed an armored vehicle.
Columbia's obtaining a MRAP is part of a wave of increasing police militarization. This wave occurs at a time in which violent crime rates have been steadily dropping for years, but when political tension, dissatisfaction with the government, and attention to political and police abuse are at a high point. This raises questions about the motivation for arming American police with the tools used by the military to fight Al Qaida.