Tracy, MN, a town of 2,100, possesses an armored vehicle for its two full-time cops [UPDATE]
Does a Minnesota town with only two full-time cops really need this vehicle?
UPDATE: Another small Minnesota town's police department has come under fire for possessing what some may call excessive military equipment. Royalton possesses a grenade launcher thanks to a free program offered through the U.S. Department of Defense. According to the chief of police, the grenade launcher has languished in a safe for five years.
The images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed teen was shot to death August 9, precipitating mass protests, show cops crouching on armored tanks and squinting into sniper scopes. They're dressed head to toe in camouflage as they rush civilians with assault rifles.
For this, we can credit a U.S. Department of Defense program that was created in the early 1990s and gives free military equipment to sheriff's offices, local police departments, and state agencies. It became all the rage of the post-9/11 era and today touches every corner of the United States. Minnesota is no exception.
All but four counties in the state have received equipment in the last decade, according to data compiled by the New York Times. St. Louis County, for instance, which includes Duluth, owns a mine-resistant vehicle. Authorities in Dakota County have $180,000 worth of night vision goggles. Hennepin County is home to an infrared system that's worth $415,739.09. (The numbers are not broken down by specific law enforcement agencies, so it's difficult to know whether a pair of boots went to, say, Minneapolis or Bloomington.)
Then there's Ramsey County, whose various law enforcement agencies are by far the biggest recipient of defense patronage in the state. The list is huge -- totaling more than $1.8 million -- and includes everything from parkas to a bomb-disposing robot. In between, you'll find three helicopters as well as 40 pistols and 992 assault rifles. Seventy-one M16s and 19 M14s belong to the sheriff's office.
We asked Sgt. John Eastham, a spokesman, about the weapons, and he was quick to point out that the M16s have been permanently converted into semi-automatic rifles, no different than ones you'd find at Gander Mountain.
"These are weapons we were going to use anyhow, because they're more accurate than handguns and shotguns in an active shooter situation," he says. Plus it relieves pressure on their own budget. "It was the fiscally responsible thing to do," he adds.
By comparison, the police agencies in St. Louis County, Missouri, which includes Ferguson, received less than a third of what the police agencies in Ramsey County did. More troubling still is what some of the least populous counties have at their disposal. Benton and Blue Earth each possess a $65,000 armored truck. Mahnomen County owns a grenade launcher for firing gas canisters; Mille Lacs County has two.
According to the Minnesota National Guard, the agencies who've participated in the federal program since the '90s include the Department of Natural Resources, 85 county sheriffs, and 325 police departments. The total value of the gear is more than $25 million.
Bear in mind, this equipment comes courtesy of the Pentagon, so it represents only a small part of the picture. Law enforcement agencies also purchase military equipment with their own money, or via Department of Homeland Security grants.
So many options, right? Never fear: The hardworking folks at the Minnesota Law Enforcement Support Office program have your back. They set up Tracy, Minnesota, a town of 2,100 people, with an armored
tank vehicle. In a video posted last summer, Kim Ketterhagen, the program's point person, appealed to other small towns: "Please reach out to us and obtain this equipment. It's just there for the asking."
Which still doesn't explain why cops need this equipment. Maybe the bigger problem is gun violence in the United States. Is it really a stretch to say that cops are beefing up because they're scared?
Brady Burnside, chief deputy of the Mahnomen County Sheriff's Office, describes himself as "a rarity in law enforcement" because he believes in greater restrictions on gun ownership. He's watched social media blow up in the last week with stories of how few police shootings there are overseas.
"It seems like all they want to talk about is how many people are being killed by law enforcement in the United States," Burnside says. "Nobody wants to talk about the officers killed or the threat that officers feel daily."
But are assault rifles and tanks the solution? Last week, David Ebinger, the chief of police in Moorhead, Minnesota, told a reporter, "If you show up with that gear and you don't have a riot, you're inviting one."
::: UPDATE :::
An email comes to us this afternoon from someone claiming to speak on behalf of Tracy police (no one returned our message left Friday). The person says the department consists of four officers, not three (two full time and one part time), and the Humvee is made of aluminum that "you could poke a hole in with a screw driver."
Sounds like they need some tougher vehicles.
::: UPDATE II :::
More than a few readers have reached out in the last 24 hours to disagree with our characterization of Tracy's vehicle as "armored." While tougher than a Crown Vic, the Humvee in this case has not been outfitted with the kind of armor kit you'll find overseas. It's a point well taken. We're still awaiting comment from the Tracy police department.
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