Fearing backlash from the public, San Jose police have opted to get rid of a heavily armored 15-ton truck, a military hand-me-down the city received from the Pentagon earlier this year.
The San Jose Police Department, already under the microscope for quietly buying a drone, began talking about getting rid of the mine-resistant vehicle even before riots in Ferguson brought them national attention.
Police didn't want the vehicle's presence to breach the public's trust, as more people worry about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, SJPD spokeswoman Sgt. Heather Randol told San Jose Inside.
"We maybe could have done it a little bit differently," she said. "It was never our intent to surreptitiously acquire anything."
The original plan was to use the vehicle to help the SJPD bomb squad, a regional resource, and to deploy it very infrequently.
"We thought about this a lot," Randol said. "We thought about ways to change the appearance, to make it look less like a military vehicle. We did some outreach to our citizen advisory board. We took into account some of the news coverage across the country, the public's fears of police militarization. We had to weigh the consequences. There's a lot to consider."
Ultimately, Randol said, SJPD didn't want to risk its reputation.
"We really value the community trust," she said. "And some of the feedback we got is that having this did, perhaps, change the community perception."
Hundreds of cities across the nation have received second-hand war gear through the U.S. Department of Defense in the past year with little-to-no public notice. M-16 rifles, silencers, grenade launchers and other instruments of war have wound up at local police agencies. Says the New York Times, which compiled a catalog of what was distributed through the Pentagon 1033 program:
During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.
San Jose Inside's parent company recently made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for equipment distributed through the Pentagon's 1033 program. A document shows that since 2006, Santa Clara County law enforcement agencies, including SJPD, have received:
- Thirty-one 5.56 millimeter rifles
- One 7.62 millimeter rifle
- Twenty-four "screen, camouflage"
- A $44,722.00 utility truck
- A $733,000 mine-resistant vehicle
The armored vehicle in San Jose is called a mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP for short. Brand name: Navistar Defense International MaxxPro. It's stands 10 feet tall and is designed to bear the brunt of roadside bombs. The Pentagon gave out 432 in the past year, including one each to Redwood City, Antioch and South San Francisco, which decided to keep them.
This is what they look like:
Civil rights activists commended police in San Jose and Davis, a small college town just west of Sacramento, for deciding to nix the MRAPs from their fleet. But they also argue that cities should revise local policies that allowed them to acquire military-grade equipment without public notice.
The Pentagon program that allows military transfers was created in the '90s over fears that street gangs were outgunning local law enforcement—a moot point now that crime has fallen to its lowest levels in decades.
Randol said San Jose's MRAP vehicle will be returned without compensation to the DOD, which will likely hand it off to another police department.
"It was given to us for free, so we will return it back to the military defense agency without compensation," she said. "They will give it to the next agency that has applied to have it."
If San Jose needs an armored vehicle, it will work with other Bay Area cities, maybe setting up an agreement to borrow on an as-needed basis, Randol said.