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New documents show the surprising reasons local cops want vehicles designed for war

Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Why do law enforcement officials feel they need military-grade equipment to police our streets? Apparently, they feel they're really fighting a war — a war on drugs.

The 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests put a lot of attention on the military-grade equipment used by some law enforcement agencies for even basic policing. And public police advocates said they need the weapons to fight major threats, such as terrorism.

But it turns out the real focus may be drugs.

Mother Jones's Molly Redden requested records of police departments' applications for armored vehicles to the Pentagon between 2012 and 2014. What she found is that most police agencies said they needed mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) — which some have compared to tanks — to help fight drug trafficking. Cops rarely cited active shooters, hostage situations, or terrorism, as police advocates did in the past year's debate over the military-grade equipment.

Redden ran through the numbers:

[T]he single most common reason agencies requested a mine-resistant vehicle was to combat drugs. Fully a quarter of the 465 requests projected using the vehicles for drug enforcement. Almost half of all departments indicated that they sit within a region designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (Nationwide, only 17 percent of counties are HIDTAs.) One out of six departments were prepared to use the vehicles to serve search or arrest warrants on individuals who had yet to be convicted of a crime. And more than half of the departments indicated they were willing to deploy armored vehicles in a broad range of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids.

By contrast, out of the total 465 requests, only 8 percent mention the possibility of a barricaded gunman. For hostage situations, the number is 7 percent, for active shooters, 6 percent. Only a handful mentioned downed officers or the possibility of terrorism.

Some of the requests even focused on marijuana, which is now legal in four states. Here are a few examples, taken from the full documents obtained by Mother Jones:

  • Shasta County, California, Sheriff's Office: "The Armored Tactical Vehicle will be used during apprehension of suspects in both Marijuana eradication and during high risk search warrant service for drug offenders. It will also be used to assist allied agencies."
  • Cass County, Minnesota, Sheriff's Office: "significant increase of outdoor Marijuana grows with in [sic] the county."
  • Clearwater County, Idaho, Sheriff's Office: "The MRAP will be used for Drug and Marijuana eradication. The nearest MRAP is 6 hours from us. The MRAP will help provide safety to Deputies when performing high risk operations."

It's unclear just how much of a drug and marijuana trafficking problem Cass County, with a population of 28,500, and Clearwater County, with a population of 8,500, have. But apparently the sheriff's offices think they're big enough issues to require trucks that can withstand bomb blasts to address.

But not all of the police departments had their requests fulfilled. Out of the 466 applications filed, Redden estimated "a few dozen" got the vehicles, based on federal data obtained by the New York Times and the Marshall Project.

The focus on drugs isn't exactly surprising, given that the federal program was first established in the 1990s to help fight the drug war. The Pentagon's 1033 program supplies police departments with surplus military equipment — from MRAPs to combat rifles — with the explicit goals of fighting drugs and terrorism. (Other programs from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice also help provide this type of equipment to police.)

But even if police don't request these trucks to fight drugs, they may end up using them in those scenarios anyway. That's because the 1033 program requires police use the equipment within a year of obtaining it, or the federal government takes it back. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that this essentially encourages police to use the weapons even when they're not totally necessary.

Still, many law enforcement agencies genuinely feel they need these kinds of weapons — even in seemingly tiny communities — to fight drugs. And that's just another way the war on drugs has changed policing in the US to be far more aggressive.