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Twin Cities Area Police Forces Loaded Up On War Surplus Under President Trump

A mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, originally created for the military, displayed in 2013 by a sheriff's department official in Warren County, N.Y.
Mike Groll
A mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, originally created for the military, displayed in 2013 by a sheriff's department official in Warren County, N.Y.

When protests erupted in Minnesota following the death of George Floyd — the black man who died after a white Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes — many of the law enforcement agencies from the Twin Cities metropolitan area that responded were recent beneficiaries of free excess military materiel from a Pentagon program originally meant to support counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations.

At least 10 police departments in the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs have obtained either all or nearly all of their Department of Defense military-grade equipment — ranging from $13.56 cartridge magazines to hulking personnel carriers with original price tags surpassing $700,000 — during the first three and a half years of the Trump administration.

That haul was part of more than $1 billion worth of military equipment transferred to police and sheriff departments since 2016 under what is commonly known as the 1033 program, named for the section of a 1997 defense bill that authorized the initiative.

For many years the program, which has distributed more than $7 billion worth of military surplus to local law enforcement agencies since its inception, kept a low profile. That changed in 2014 when police in Ferguson, Mo., deployed donated military equipment against demonstrators protesting the fatal shooting of another black man, Michael Brown, by a white policeman.

A Revoked Presidential Order

The public outcry that episode ignited over what many saw as the militarization of police forces prompted President Obama to sign a executive order in 2015 that authorized a recall of transferred military equipment such as tracked armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers and bayonets. It also prohibited any more distribution of such items.

The restrictions that measure imposed on the 1033 program were opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and in August 2017 President Trump fulfilled a campaign promise to that police organization by rescinding Obama's executive order.

Trump's revocation enabled the 42-member police force of Cottage Grove, a fast-growing St. Paul suburb, to receive 39 bayonets in December from the Defense Logistics Agency, which administers the 1033 program. The DLA had previously recalled 1,623 bayonets issued to local law enforcement agencies.

The bayonets were part of a much larger windfall for that police department. No Minnesota law enforcement agency has received more military surplus during the Trump administration than that of Cottage Grove, whose population of approximately 37,000 inhabitants is 80% white, has above-average household incomes, and boasts a violent crime rate 81% below the state average.

Since Cottage Grove received its first military equipment in November from the 1033 program — six night vision viewers, each valued at $10,427.10 — it has acquired 461 other types of surplus gear whose total listed value exceeds $1 million.

War Vehicle Makes Local Debut At Minnesota Protest

Sgt. Brad Petersen, who supervises Cottage Grove's participation in the Pentagon program, says the chief reason his police department joined that decades-old initiative was to get a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, armored personnel carrier.

"We witnessed other communities getting MRAP's through the 1033 program, and we enrolled in 2019 to explore that opportunity," Petersen recalls.

It worked. Like many other police departments in the Twin Cities metropolitan region, Cottage Grove now has an MRAP of its own — or at least in its possession.

The vehicle, originally designed for forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and meant to withstand improvised explosive device blasts, technically remains controlled property of the Department of Defense, as does all equipment transferred to law enforcement agencies that is of a strictly military nature.

"We went through pretty great lengths to remove all the military hardware and soften its image, make it appear and function more like a civilian armored vehicle," Petersen says of the MRAP, which was delivered in March. "We were really careful of how we were going to use it, because we were sensitive to the militarization issue, and obviously we saw what happened in Ferguson six years ago and that's been part of the narrative since then."

Cottage Grove's MRAP, with a list value of $705,421, was kept off the streets until protests erupted over the police killing of George Floyd.

"We rushed it back into service when things started to go sideways here," says Petersen, who is also a commander on Washington County's 36-member SWAT team. "The first time we used it was the week of civil unrest."

Members of the Cottage Grove police force joined other law enforcement teams in Oakdale, a St. Paul suburb, at protests outside a house owned by Derek Chauvin, the now-fired Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd's neck.

Cottage Grove's MRAP was used to transport about a half dozen local SWAT team members to a staging area in Oakdale "just as a contingency," according to Petersen. "We were there to respond if there was an active shooter or a high risk situation, never to directly engage any of the protesters."

Other items on Cottage Grove's wish list for the 1033 program suggest its police department had been girding for a possible face-off with demonstrators.

According to DLA records, a request from its police for four "riot control kits," worth $35,000 each, was made in February for "crowd control operations" but was rejected on the grounds the department had not submitted required paperwork.

Bayonets Deemed Knives

Petersen says the bayonets his force recently received through the Pentagon program were intended to be used as utility knives rather than mounted on rifle barrels.

Knives in the possession of uniformed agents have proven problematic during Minnesota's protests.

Video recordings show law enforcement officers from Anoka, another Twin Cities suburb, stabbing knives into tires of parked cars in the midst of Minneapolis demonstrations.

A press release from the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, which participates in the 1033 program, acknowledges that some of that agency's officers "deflated the tires" of two "illegally abandoned" vehicles during the street protests "in order to preserve order, life and safety of both the protestors and law enforcement that were present at this location."

The knives used are not listed among the $377,654 worth of Pentagon-controlled military items that DLA records indicate the Anoka County Sheriff's Office has received through that program since 2017.

Return to Sender

As for the bayonets transferred by the DLA to Cottage Grove, Petersen says while they are "nice" to have, none have been issued to individual officers.

"My bosses' viewpoint is different — they're more sensitive to the perception that it's militarization of police or whatnot," says the Cottage Grove police sergeant in a phone interview. "In fact, [the bayonets] are sitting in a box and they're going to be returned to the DLA."

There has been no indication that Trump might be reconsidering his revocation of Obama's executive order banning the transfer of such items as bayonets.

At a White House signing Tuesday of an executive order for safe policing Trump accused Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden of having done nothing to fix policing problems.

The 45th president made no mention of the military gear now going to police in places like the Twin Cities suburbs that his predecessor had restricted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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