A sheriff’s department in a remote rural California county with only 18,000 people, no incorporated cities, few sworn officers and almost no crime, was able to obtain a second military-grade MRAP armored vehicle in 2017 by giving brief answers to a simple questionnaire, according to documents obtained under freedom of information requests.
MRAP stands for mine-resistant ambush protected, though the prospect of encountering mines or being ambushed would seem to be unlikely in even the toughest US police precincts.
The documents, provided to the Guardian by the transparency non-profit Property of the People, show how quickly Donald Trump’s 2017 reversal of the Barack Obama administration’s curtailment of the transfer of battlefield equipment to law enforcement agencies led to their renewed proliferation, and how little agencies had to do to demonstrate any real need for them.
The documents include Mariposa county sheriff’s office (MCSO) application for the second MRAP from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The application in September 2017, about a month after Trump reversed a 2015 Obama executive order which prohibited the transfer of equipment like armored vehicles, grenade launchers and high-caliber weapons to civilian agencies.
With one-line or one-paragraph answers to 15 questions, the rural county sheriff was able to add the vehicle to its already extant Mamba MRAP, acquired in 2014.
Since 1997, the 1033 program has handed $7.4bn worth of surplus equipment from the Department of Defense (DoD) to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across America.
The program has been pinpointed as a major contributor to the militarization of domestic police forces, who since the program commenced in 1997 were able to obtain military-grade weapons and tactical equipment free of charge from the DoD, with their contribution limited to the transportation of equipment and ongoing maintenance.
Obama had restricted the flow of combat-grade gear after opposition to police militarization was focused by the initial mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement.
MCSO had already received a Mamba tactical wheeled vehicle from DLA in 2014. Acquiring the second vehicle required them to apply for an exemption to the policy limiting allocations to one MRAP per law enforcement agency.
They achieved this by giving brief answers to a series of questions. In those answers MCSO revealed that they had just “39 full-time compensated peace officers and nine part-time peace officers”; that the central California county was “a remote, mountainous area with no incorporated cities”; that the current population was just 18,251; and that a large portion of the county lies in Yosemite national park.
Nevertheless, in the application signed by Sheriff Douglas A Binnewies, MCSO argued a second armored vehicle was essential to the agency’s work, since “the nearest Swat teams are more than one hour away”, and “having a tactical vehicle stationed in two different locations within the county would improve response time greatly”.
The application also points out that Mariposa county was “located in the jurisdiction of the Central Valley California HIDTA”. The Federal designation of HIDTAs, or High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, has, since 1990, mandated coordination and cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
HIDTAs were implemented under the authority of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a central component of the so-called “war on drugs”, which increased sentences for drug offenses, instituted mandatory minimum sentences and is criticized for having increased the disproportionate imprisonment of black men nationwide.
In its approval of the application from the California agency, DLA cited the need to prepare for an “emergency response for Irma, the approaching hurricane”, which struck Florida that month.
Despite MCSO’s invocation of Swat teams and drug trafficking, statistics from the state of California suggest that Mariposa county has little crime overall, and certainly very little violent crime.
According to figures from the California department of justice (CDoJ), the county has seen only three homicides since 2010, all in 2012.
In 2017, the year MCSO applied for the new MRAP, the county had just three violent robberies: one with a firearm, and two “strong-arm” robberies. In 2019 there were just two violent robberies.
2017 was a relatively bad for violent crimes in the county: in the last 10 years it has averaged 74 violent crimes per annum, and that year it had 108. But according to CDoJ figures almost all of these were either aggravated assaults (96) or rapes (nine), crimes which would not require a tactical response.
2019 saw just 79 violent crimes, with all but two either aggravated assaults or rapes.
While California does not offer parallel statistics for drug offenses, the state records just 18 arrests for drug offenses in 2017, and 34 in 2019.
Asked in an email about his office’s use of the MRAPs, Binneweis wrote: “We have used these ballistic vehicles for high risk search warrants, where firearms are believed to be present (and located).”
Despite the federal cooperation canvassed in the application, Binneweis conceded that “to my recollection, we have not used the ballistic vehicles in a joint federal operation or response”.
Asked about the very low rates of crime in the county, Binneweis responded: “Mariposa county prides itself as a very safe county. This is the product of much energy and effort by our community and local law enforcement.”
He added, however, that deputies respond to some 70 calls a day, noting that “Mariposa county is a rural, agricultural county where firearms are common in most households. Many of those firearms are scoped long guns, supporting the need to protect our law enforcement, whether federal, state or local with ballistic vehicles.”
Asked about the timing of the application in relation to Trump administration policy, Binneweis wrote: “I believe we noticed that [the transfer of MRAPs] had restarted under President Trump.”
He added: “I’m glad the program is active again. Of course it’s in how you use it, and what kind of relationship local law enforcement agencies have with their community.”
In an email, Ryan Shapiro of Property of the People wrote: “There’s simply no legitimate basis for the provision of one, much less two, heavily armored military vehicles from the Pentagon to the sheriff’s department of a sparsely populated, rural California county.”
He added: “The ongoing militarization of American police forces threatens us all and paves the way for authoritarian rule.”
The provision of military equipment to local law enforcement has emerged as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Joe Biden, who as a senator voted for the act which authorized the 1033 program, proposing to “stop transferring weapons of war to police forces”, and Trump doubling down on his “law and order” rhetoric by sending militarized federal agents to police protests in cities like Portland.