With the topic of police militarization in the limelight following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in a St. Louis, Missouri, suburb and the subsequent demonstrations, looting and police pushback, Young County Commissioners have asked the local sheriff's department to produce “rules of engagement” for a newly acquired military armored response vehicle.
At the Aug.11 Commissioners Court meeting, Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Sipes brought up his concerns about the acquisition, use and maintenance of a hand-me-down, mine-resistant, ambush-protected 6x6 military vehicle, or MRAP, that at the time, three deputies were at Fort Bliss to retrieve.
The MRAP is the third military vehicle and the second armored vehicle the Young County Sheriff's Department has obtained through the Texas 1033 program. The more than 20-year-old program doles out surplus war equipment to first response agencies that can prove a need and provide maintenance for the vehicles.
Deputy Jim Budarf was one of the three who traveled to El Paso to pick up the MRAP, and on Monday he and Deputy Jabe Underwood, addressed the commissioners' concerns. Budarf said that, of the three military vehicles the department has, the MRAP is the only one in service, explaining that the department is considering returning the other vehicles to the 1033 program or donating them to another agency.
Sipes' first question for the deputies: Why do we need it?
“Well there are a lot of reasons,” Budarf said. “First of all, protection of our deputies and any other officer that needs to use it. Secondly, protection of the citizens. When bullets start flying, we need something to protect us. There are a lot of circumstances where we could use the vehicle: barricaded subjects, hostage situations, school shootings, you name it. There are endless possibilities for that vehicle.”
The commissioner also brought up the concern that the federal government may have other motives for spreading out these vehicles.
“I understand where you are going with that, and I believe it's some kind of question about whether or not the government is staging these vehicles across the nation to use in case something happens,” Budarf said. “I can assure you, that is not the case.”
Budarf explained that the vehicles don't belong to the Young County and can be retrieved at any time. Most of the public only hears about high-profile vehicles like the MRAP, he said, but the sheriff's department acquires many items through the program, such as night vision equipment.
Volunteer fire departments also use the program, Budarf added, asking if that means fire departments are being militarized.
Sipes retorted that firefighting equipment is benign and ultimately the issue boils down to the public perception of police.
“Well my concern is we've got our children sitting and watching TV, watching all this on TV,” Sipes said. “Those (vehicles) are always seen in a military, war zone type situation, but when they see it in their town, are they questioning, ‘Do I have a reason to be afraid of what's going on around me because of the presence of this thing?' We don't want to see a wedge continue to get pushed between the citizens you protect and the people who are protecting them, and of course the news media has not helped you out.”
Deputy Underwood interjected that parents should explain to their children what the MRAP is used for, as an object to protect them.
Read the entire story in Wednesday's Graham Leader.