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Geared Up

(WAGM)
Published: Jun. 24, 2020 at 4:11 PM EDT
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Reporter Lee Zurik: SUPERIOR, WISCONSIN IS A SMALL CITY....OF 26-THOUSAND....TUCKED UP AGAINST THE BORDER OF MINNESOTA....FBI STATISTICS SHOWS IN A FOUR YEAR PERIOD...SUPERIOR HAD 1 MURDER....AND 49 REPORTED ROBBERIES. BUT DURING THAT SAME TIME PERIOD....POLICE FELT THE NEED TO USE A MILITARY MINE-RESISTANT VEHICLE....DESIGNED TO PROTECT SOLDERS IN WAR ZONES.

Chief Nicholas Alexander, Superior, WI Police Dept.: The kids loved climbing in it, and people were interested by it. But then there was also a smaller group of people that did express they didn’t think city police should have a piece of military equipment, something that’s meant for a theater of war or war operations.

Zurik: EVERY YEAR...THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE TRANSFERS EXCESS MILITARY EQUIPMENT TO POLICE AGENCIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.SINCE SEPTEMBER 2014....THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS SENT 55 MINE-RESISTANT VEHICLES TO POLICE IN TENNESSEE, 42 IN TEXAS… AND NORTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA AND ALABAMA ALL GETTING AT LEAST TWO DOZEN.

Acting Chief Victor Wahl, Madison, WI Police Dept: We have to deal with gun violence and dealing with having to apprehend dangerous suspects and have a need for an armored vehicle for some of those assignments

Zurik: IN MADISON, WISCONSIN....THE DEPARTMENT EVENTUALLY TRADED IN THAT MILITARY VEHICLE....FOR A CIVILIAN VERSION.

Wahl: The military ones are designed for a different mission, and it’s really not suited very well for a civilian law enforcement agency.

Zurik: LOCAL DEPARTMENTS HAVE TO EXPLAIN WHY THEY WANT THE EQUIPMENT – WE FOUND MOST SAY THEY NEED THE HEAVY TRUCKS FOR SITUATIONS FROM ACTIVE SHOOTERS TO HOSTAGE RESCUES TO NATURAL DISASTERS. WE FOUND MONETT, MISSOURI HAS TWO OF THE VEHICLES.....FOR A POPULATION OF 9 THOUSAND. POLICE THERE DECLINED AN INTERVIEW.

Prof. Rylan Simpson, Simon Fraser University: Police should want the compliance to come from their perceived legitimacy as opposed to the public's fear of them. And I think once they can garner that legitimacy and support, the need for that kind of equipment should theoretically diminish.

Zurik: IN 2014,....AFTER THE DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI....PROTESTS AND RIOTS...LEAD TO HEADLINE....AFTER HEADLINE....AFTER HEADLINE...ABOUT THE MILIARIZATION OF POLICE.

THE WHITE HOUSE ORDERED AN INVESTIGATION INTO MILITARY GEAR GOING TO POLICE....BUT EVEN AFTER CRITICISM AND CRITIQUE … WE FOUND A LARGE NUMBER OF THESE HEAVY-DUTY TRUCKS GOING TO POLICE. FOR EXAMPLE...IN THE 6 YEARS PRIOR TO FERGUSON...THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE GAVE 606 MINE-RESISTANT VEHICLES TO LOCAL POLICE. IN THE 6 YEARS SINCE...493.

Simpson: There is types of military equipment that might never have a place in local policing. There’s other types of equipment that might have a function. But above all else, we have to consider very carefully about how we deploy it and why we use it.

Zurik: WHAT ABOUT THE SAFETY OF POLICE OFFICERS HERE? YOU GO TO A SCENE, YOU MIGHT KNOW HOW THE SERIOUS INCIDENT WILL OR WILL NOT GET THERE. PEOPLE SAY THEY NEED TO GO THERE IN RIOT GEAR OR PROTECTION TO PROTECT THEMSELVES.

Simpson: That's an absolutely fair concern on the part of police. I think they too have the right to their own safety and well being, and oftentimes it’s the equipment that allows them to ensure that takes place.

Zurik: OUR ANALYSIS ALSO FOUND LOTS OF OTHER GEAR GOING TO DEPARTMENTS...FROM HEAVY COATS....TO BOATS....AND PLENTY OF GUNS....MORE THAN 6-THOUSAND RIFLES SINCE SEPTEMBER 2014. IN TOTAL – AT LEAST 20 REQUESTS SPECIFICALLY NAMED PROTESTS OR RIOTS AS ONE REASON FOR REQUESTING EQUIPMENT – INCLUDING BATONS, SHIELDS, AN ATV, A VIDEO CONFERENCING SYSTEM, AND RIOT TRAINING SUITS.

Alexander: Most of the time we're acquiring items we’d be able to get anyway but we can get them for free or at a much lower cost through that program. So we view it more of something that’s often times driven by fiscal restraints than a desire to feel more like a military-style organization.

Zurik: CRITICS SAY THIS EQUIPMENT MILITARIZES LOCAL POLICE....AND SENDS THE WRONG MESSAGE TO THE COMMUNITY

Wahl: Who do we hire, what’s our culture, what’s our philosophy? How do we interact with the public, how do we treat people? Because you can have a lot of scenarios where you don’t have an armored vehicle or that sort of equipment and have cops behaving pretty badly. And you can have officers using armored vehicles in tactical situations and be completely professional and have opportunities to have engagement with the public.

Zurik: THAT MIXED MESSAGE IS ONE REASON THE SUPERIOR, WISCONSIN POLICE DEPARTMENT RETURNED THAT MILITARY VEHICLE...AND PURCHASED THE SMALLER...CIVILIAN MODEL. THE CHIEF SAYS....OBTAINING EQUIPMENT FROM THE MILITARY ISN'T WRONG.....IT HELPS FILL A GAP … GIVING DEPARTMENTS A WAY TO SAVE MONEY ON THINGS THEY CAN USE – AND IN MANY CASES, WOULD HAVE BOUGHT ANYWAY.

Alexander: I always do kind of do a litmus test when we’re consider taking something from that program. One, do we need it? Two, will we use it? And three: what are the optics of it?

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