This article was first published in June 2014, but it’s worth revisiting now. Michigan cities are just as militarized as Ferguson, Missouri. It could happen here too.
Updated 8-24-14 to reflect new number on Michigan MRAPS, and provide a searchable database.
There’s a fire sale of used and overstock war toys going-on across the nation. The U.S. government is unashamedly in the business of hawking their gently used war machines and espionage gadgetry to local law enforcement agencies. The Feds are taking it one step further though, by making it easy for communities to get-in on the war games by providing grants for the purchase of the hardware — one-stop shopping!
The city of Washington, Iowa is among many to recently acquire an MRAP — Mine Resistant Ambush Protected troop transport. The U.S. Department of Justice supplied the community of 7,300 with the $500,000 armored vehicle at no charge through a program designed to repurpose military hardware for civilian use.
Washington, Iowa — not exactly a hotbed of criminal activity — has seen only 3 murders in recent history.
The 11 member police force plans to share the vehicle with neighboring communities to help offset the maintenance and operation cost of the 5 mile per gallon MRAP.
According to Department of Defense records, Michigan police departments have already acquired 17 MRAPs for law enforcement since 2006. The New York Times reports that nearly every state in the nation is putting the armored vehicles to use, with 432 currently transitioned for non-military purposes — typically the hardware is given to SWAT teams. Among additional gear flowing into city police department arsenals we find: 435 in other types of armored vehicles, 44,900 night vision pieces, 533 aircraft, 93,763 machine guns, accompanied by 180,718 magazines. (Searchable database here.)
Two months ago, Libertarian Party members in Michigan City, Indiana gathered petition signatures asking city officials to return their MRAP to the Defense Department, citing a concern that the militarization of the local police force was escalating, instead of deterring crime. More than 700 signatures were collected in the town of 31,000 residents.
Earlier this year in Oakland County, Michigan, police officials purchased a state-of-the-art cell phone tracking system, ominously called “Hailstorm”, with super-secret classified proprietary surveillance capabilities developed by a private contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. The $170,000 device was obtained through a Homeland Security grant of over $250,000, which includes money for training. The Detroit News attempted to learn more about its capabilities and potential applications, but their Freedom of Information Act request was denied citing a non-disclosure agreement with the manufacturer and restrictions under the Homeland Security Act.
Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst and principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he began noticing police agencies nationwide purchase Hailstorm about the same time as Oakland County.
Soghoian said the devices can identify all phones in a targeted radius and ascertain what numbers each called. What’s particularly worrisome is there is no telltale sign they’ve been used, Soghoian said: “It doesn’t leave a trace. No one would ever catch you.”
Invasion of privacy abuses are a very real concern with this kind of stealthy technology. A similar device, dubbed “Stingray”, was illegally used by officials in Tallahassee, Florida. Police there activated the device hundreds of times without obtaining the necessary warrant. The abuses were discovered when a motion was filed by ACLU attorneys to unseal the testimony of a law officer who, in a criminal case, said that he had activated the device without a search warrant. He went on to admit that his department had done so “200 or more times” between 2007 and 2010.
Progressives and Libertarians Agree
The use of these sophisticated — and expensive — spy technologies within local law enforcement agencies collides head-on with Fourth Amendment protections at the intersection of progressive and libertarian ideologies.
Last year, when Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-104), the chair of the Michigan House Committee on Transportation, tried to slip through legislation allowing so-called “red light” cameras, his bill faced strident opposition from both the left and the right. A Michigan Tea Party group, Campaign for Liberty, presented the legislature with a white paper outlining all that’s wrong with the devices — and there’s plenty wrong to be found. At the same time, Progressives framed their argument based on the fact that the cameras don’t prevent drivers from running red lights, plus they incentivize communities to shorten yellow lights for revenue purposes, and they actually cause more accidents than they prevent. Voices from the right focused on privacy concerns along with public safety. Schmidt subsequently back-pedaled on the legislation.
Military Hardware for Kids
In true capitalist fashion, one American manufacturer is now marketing body armor to school children. The company has produced bullet-proof blankies for students to hide under in the event of a mass shooting. At $1,000 a pop, they aren’t exactly catching-on with the younger crowd. The so-called “Bodyguard Blanket” is also being touted as a form of protection from tornadoes.
Sounds about as useful as our less expensive cold war solution.