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Military gear on home front makes some Nevada County residents uneasy

Dave Brooksher
Staff Writer
Nevada County Sheriff’s Department acquired a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle from the Department of Defense.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union


(Editor’s note: The following comments were either posted at TheUnion.com or Facebook.com/TheUnionDotCom.)

Gilbert Dominguez — The militarization of county police all over the country is a huge problem for America. Constitutionally the “army” can not come in and rule the people. Giving the local counties military grade weapons is an end around this corner stone of our democrac...See More

Heidi Hall — I am very glad that the Union is looking into this. I believe every County BOS and/or city council should be asking what equipment law enforcement agencies have acquired, what they anticipate being used for, and the costs incurred for transportation of the equipment, ongoing maintenance costs and any training costs. I believe our representatives should be part of the decision-making for acquiring such equipment.

Andy Wright — Grass Valley has a military vehicle of some sort which as been visible at one of the street events. I appreciate that The Union is informing our citizens about the militarization of our local LE. I suggest that the purchase or grant (still our tax dollars) of the equipment is only part of the equation. How much does LE spend to maintain the equipment, and what are the training costs?

Devan Phenix — Militarization of our police, such as vehicles like the MRAP, does not say “serve and protect” but “threaten and kill”.

Amanda Montague — Its supposed to be “serve and protect,” not the other way around. Scary times...

Pete Peterson — When your favorite new tool is a hammer, EVERYTHING starts looking like a nail. Ex-military equipment belongs with the National Guard, to be called up or mobilized if/when needed by governor of the state or his/her agents. NOT in the hands of the local police departments. You want cross-training and joint exercises? By all means do so. A fast response program or team? Makes great sense. But military equipment belongs in the hands of a proper military organization and needs that one degree of separation, with its use based on appropriate requests, justification, and most importantly - outside accountability. Our officers don’t just need the latest tools and resources, they need the RIGHT tools and resources. Lets get back to calling them Peace officers. (Ex military/military LEO-USN)

Kathy Peter Fretwell — our cops are local cops not trained to use Army weapons. We need to keep our county free from any big Army equipment and just use what there already are. We have enough for our protection. This isn’t the city or a county that has big gangs and lots of murders.

Dana Salisbury — If the civilians police are allowed to have them then we the people should be allowed to have them.

Deby Williams Snell — There is surplus Military Vehicles because the companies who manufacture them give money to elected officials who, in turn, make orders the Military doesn’t need. Hence the grants. These vehicles aren’t meant for our area. They overturn easily. They require lots of training (not included) small communities can’t afford. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Harlee Sue McBride — What does our government know that we don’t? How much (besides control and power) will this “gift” cost the taxpayer to train personnel and to maintain? Why does a small rural town need military equipment to maintain the peace? Too much big government in a little, bitty county, I say, give it back to the DOD. FYI, I’m a conservative.

Paul Graham — A certain amount should be available when needed. However extreme caution and good judgement (which seem to escape people) need to be used before using it. When they use it the people feel, automatically they are the enemy of an army. People will lash out. All of that needs to be taken into consideration.

Gary Watts — Law enforcement is a para military organization and needs to function as such. All the liberals will say dis arm bla bla bla like they just did in Davis then as soon as the $hit hits the fan they will be crying foul. Need an example? Look at that bank robbery in Stockton.

John DeMarco — Since when are the police a “paramilitary organization”? “Paramilitary” is defined as “potential auxiliary military force” - this is not what the police are hired to do. This is why we have the National Guard.

Facebook users had a full blown “freak-out” back in April, when the Nevada County Sheriff’s Department acquired a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle from the Department of Defense.

In recent years the MRAP has been a common sight on the streets of Kabul and Baghdad — but the thought of it in traffic here, in the mostly peaceful Sierra foothills, has raised some eyebrows.

According to Sheriff Keith Royal, the $730,000 MRAP was obtained for the cost of transporting it here, which was covered by the sheriff’s asset seizure fund.

The move was approved by the Board of Supervisors as part of the April 8 consent calendar, and made possible through the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (DoD 1033).

That program dates back to the 1990s, when Congress used a series of National Defense Acts (1990, 1991, 1997) to authorize law enforcement agencies around the country to acquire surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency, preference has been given to requests with a focus on drug enforcement and counter-terrorism activities.

According to NPR, the 1033 program has also been used to distribute night vision goggles, combat knives, handguns, assault rifles, bayonets and grenade launchers to more than 8,000 American law enforcement agencies. But weapons are actually a pretty small part of the program.

From 2006 to April 2014, they accounted for just 3 percent of the total value of goods distributed, at $40 million.

The 1033 program also distributes clothing, medical equipment, communications hardware and even tractors.

But the biggest slice of that pie, at $699 million, goes to vehicles like the MRAP — which has been distributed to more than 600 law enforcement agencies, including the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.

Nevada County’s has not yet been deployed, but Royal has said that it might be useful in the event of a dangerous situation like a mass shooting, hostage crisis, or bomb threat. The sheriff’s office is making arrangements to have it painted first.

“I want it to be a friendly piece of equipment,” Royal said. “I don’t want to paint it black or have SWAT all over it.”

Some of his constituents, however, do not see it that way.

Glenn Sweat, a former firefighter and lifelong resident of Nevada County, said the acquisition of the MRAP is a symptom of militarization in local law enforcement.

“That type of equipment, the MRAP in particular, is a military vehicle,” Sweat said. “It’s made for explosives, mines, and big explosions — not for little Grass Valley.”

“To me it’s overkill for our area,” he added. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it in a metropolitan area, but in our little town, it’s too much.”

He said when he first encountered the MRAP on a local roadway, Sweat called the sheriff’s office to complain but didn’t get very far.

“When I did call the sheriff’s office, they gave me the cold shoulder and were really tight-lipped about it,” Sweat said.

Harley Sue McBride, a self-identified conservative, seemed to share some of Sweat’s views on the MRAP.

“Why does a small, rural town need military equipment to maintain the peace?” McBride asked. “Too much big government in a little, bitty county. I say give it back to the DoD.”

But Royal says this is not the militarization of his department.

“As sheriff, I have no intent of us being considered a military power,” Royal said. “It’s another piece of equipment we have that helps keep our community and staff safe.”

“It’s a great tool to get people out of a serious situation,” he added.

Royal also said the MRAP in his department’s possession has no offensive capabilities.

It has not been equipped with an LRAD sound cannon, the less-than-lethal weapon deployed for crowd-control purposes by police in Ferguson, Mo., during recent protests.

Some configurations include a gun turret on top of the vehicle, but Royal said he has no intentions of modifying it in that way.

Despite any controversy over the matter, for Royal it was a financial decision. The NCSO had a 24-year-old armored car with more than 295,000 miles, and it was much cheaper to obtain the MRAP than to buy a new armored car on the open market.

“We got a fairly updated piece of equipment and all it cost us was transportation,” Royal said. “Everything on that vehicle can be maintained by our fleet people; It’s not special equipment.”

Plus, the MRAP has better armor.

But it’s not the only thing the NCSO has obtained through DoD 1033.

“We’ve gotten all kinds of stuff over the years, like waterproof boots,” Royal said. “There were some semi-automatic firearms we used. They were naval surplus and we used them for our honor guard.”

The Grass Valley Police Department also acquired 25 AR-15-style assault rifles from DoD 1033, though they were apparently never used.

“We never put them into service because they need to get refurbished,” said GVPD Chief John Foster. “We’re probably going to return them, because we got them before Measure N.”

That’s one of the requirements of the program, Foster said. If a piece of equipment is not going to be used, the agency has to send it back.

While many have criticized DoD 1033 as a driving force behind the militarization of local law enforcement agencies across the United States, Foster has said that in some cases those agencies need that kind of equipment.

“We’ve been getting outgunned by the criminals, and they’ve been more heavily armed than we are,” Foster said. “We have just caught up to them, as far as what we’ve encountered.

“And there’s more to it than just getting weapons, handguns, rifles or vehicles,” he added. “There’s a whole host of equipment that’s out there.”

“I don’t think they’d be opposed to any law enforcement agency getting a used pickup truck, sedan, photocopy machine or weight equipment. … This 1033 program’s been in place for over 24 years, and there’s a whole host of equipment that federal and state agencies are able to obtain that normally they wouldn’t be able to get because of budgetary challenges.”

While the GVPD and the NCSO have both accepted equipment through DoD 1033, Nevada City has reportedly abstained from participation in the program.

According to Nevada City Police Chief Tim Foley, NCPD hasn’t accepted a single piece of equipment from DoD 1033 in the last 16 years.

“We have no surplus military equipment here currently or in the recent past,” Foley said.

That said, he’s not opposed to the 1033 program.

“I think everything’s gotta be taken on a case-by-case basis,” Foley said.

“I know there’s a concern with the militarization of law enforcement, and I think with the influx of weaponry that is available to people in general (legally or illegally), options like that need to be explored in order to safeguard the community,” he added.

In the wake of national outrage over police violence in Ferguson, Mo., the California cities of Davis and San Jose have both announced plans to return MRAP-style armored vehicles to the Department of Defense.

Sweat told The Union he intends to spearhead a political effort urging the Board of Supervisors to do the same thing with Nevada County’s MRAP.

For the time being, however, the vehicle is just waiting for a new paint job.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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