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Floyd protests renew debate about police use of armored vehicles, other military gear

NBC News has found at least 29 instances via social media and news accounts where armored vehicles were deployed in response to George Floyd protests.

In cities across the U.S., including Philadelphia, Cincinnati and a New Orleans suburb, military-style vehicles designed for the battlefield were deployed by local police during recent protests over the death of George Floyd.

NBC News has found at least 29 instances on social media and in news accounts where military-style vehicles that belong to local police departments have been used to confront protesters since Floyd's death on May 25. At least 17 of the vehicles were deployed by police departments that obtained mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPs) through a controversial Pentagon military surplus program launched in 1997 under President Clinton.

Video shows the vehicles in action. In Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane was knocked down by a police officer who had emerged from a heavily armored mine-resistant vehicle. In Philadelphia, one was used for police officers to hurl tear gas at protesters.

When police deployed military-style equipment during the protests after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, critics said the gear added to friction between law enforcement and demonstrators, and could be an incitement to violence. The Obama administration placed limits on the federal military surplus program, which had already supplied free gear, including MRAPs, to thousands of departments

But the Trump administration lifted those barriers in 2017, and the distribution of military gear began to rise again. With the Floyd protests, experts — and some members of Congress — are again raising objections to the "militarization" of the police.

"It is outrageous that the Pentagon is supplying armored vehicles to local police departments that have been used to intimidate peaceful protesters and abet violent police crackdowns," said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning foreign policy think tank.

The U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 Program, which allows for the transfer of surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies, was created as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997. Under the program, law enforcement agencies can acquire big-ticket items such as MRAPs and guns, but also office supplies and rescue equipment.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and U.S. territories currently participate in the program. About 1,100 MRAPs have been distributed under the program.

For some individuals who attended protests within the past few weeks, the sight of military-style vehicles in the hands of local police force was jarring.

"I just felt as if it was going to get worse — like they were going to start shooting actual bullets and killing people. That's like, immediately of what my mind goes to," said Kelsey Paulus, a Kent State University student who witnessed a military-style vehicle approach protesters during a protest against police violence in Canton, Ohio.

Paulus, 20, said she expected to see police at the May 29 protest but not the large vehicles that had arrived on the scene. The college student posted a video on Twitter showing law enforcement drive an MRAP past a crowded street.

"If you're going out to protest, be safe and go with a group," she tweeted.

The Canton Police Department, which DLA records show has obtained at least one MRAP in 2014, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

But law enforcement agencies who spoke to NBC News have defended the use of the vehicles, saying they were necessary to protect officers from potential violence.

The Hamilton County Police Association, a group of law enforcement agencies across Hamilton County, Ohio, including the Cincinnati Police Department, said it has obtained equipment, including an MRAP, through the 1033 program.

"The vehicle was recently used in the City of Cincinnati during the protests after a few nights where unfortunately, some people took advantage of the peaceful protests and started [to] become more violent by looting business, possessing weapons, and shooting at police officers, striking one in their ballistic helmet," Rick Bley, the association's president, told NBC News.

Image: A National Guard military tank on corner near a protest in Cincinnati, Ohio
A military vehicle on corner near a protest in Cincinnati, Ohio.@fathercookie

Police also told NBC News that the vehicles are often brought in to rescue individuals in the event of an active shooter and to enable law enforcement to carry more of its force in a single vehicle.

"We are trying to handle it at the lowest level possible, but our safety is paramount," said detective Greg Wilking of the Salt Lake City Police Department. "I know what people think of when they see it, that it's a military vehicle, but it's really more of a shield vehicle."

As for the police officer seen pushing an elderly man with a cane to the ground in a video shot by ABC affiliate KTVX, Wilking says a use of force investigation has been initiated and the officer has been removed from the public order unit. The detective described the officer's actions as "a lapse of judgment" and "a bit on the excessive side," but said the majority of the department's officers handled the situation appropriately.

In Sanford, Maine, a town of about 20,000, police got two mine-resistant military grade vehicles through the Pentagon program. Police Chief Thomas Connolly Jr. said they are used as part of a regional SWAT team, and cited two cases in recent months where they were helpful arresting armed individuals who police were arresting in separate felony warrants.

On the morning before a Floyd-related protest march in Sanford on June 6, police were told a sniper with a rifle was on the roof of a Main Street building. Police dispatched officers in the armored vehicle. The man with the rifle turned out to be a security guard hired by a local business owner. Connolly said he then moved the vehicles to a police parking lot away from the march.

"We have very strict policies about its use," he said. "It will not be used in a civil response," like for protests. Connolly termed this "the Ferguson rule" — trying to avoid inflaming a protest by placing the vehicles near non-violent marches. A Twitter poster who recorded one of the vehicles that day being driven along a street had expressed outrage.

A half-dozen other departments contacted by NBC News about their policies for use of military-style vehicles obtained via the 1033 program did not respond to requests for comment. Another department said the policy would only be provided via a freedom of information public records request.

Some of the vehicles seen in protest videos were not obtained via the 1033 program. In Walnut Creek, Calif., near San Francisco, police used a military-style vehicle that was not obtained via the program to help disperse protesters. Officers also threw tear gas. The incident came after objects had been thrown at police and an officer suffered unspecified injuries. Two protesters also suffered unspecified injuries, including one bitten by a police dog. The police department issued a statement that it is investigating the incident over the use of force against protesters.

The City of Orange, Calif., has a military-style vehicle known as a BearCat that it purchased outside of the Pentagon program. Sgt. Phil McMullin said the department deployed it to protests in nearby Garden Grove and Santa Ana. The decision to use the vehicle was in part because rocks, bottles and fireworks were thrown at police during a protest in Anaheim. He said the vehicles provide "efficient transportation" and helped police establish a "skirmish line" of police near protests, and decisions to deploy the vehicle are left to police commanders at the scene.

In North Carolina, the Henderson County Sheriff's Office sent a BearCat, an armored rescue vehicle, to assist local law enforcement during protests in nearby Asheville. The office said the vehicle was obtained nearly 10 years ago through asset forfeiture funds.

Armed police officers cross an intersection next to a military vehicle belonging to the Aurora Police Department during a protest in Denver on May 31, 2020.
Armed police officers cross an intersection next to a military vehicle belonging to the Aurora Police Department during a protest in Denver on May 31, 2020.Travis R Vowell

Several videos of military-style vehicles also emerged from protests in Denver, Colorado. The Denver Police said it had not received any vehicles from the 1033 program. The police department acknowledged using one white armored rescue vehicle, and it was purchased through other means. The department said many of the other vehicles present were from assisting agencies.

The Aurora, Colo., Police Department said it had sent one of its armored vehicles — a vehicle not obtained via the 1033 program — to one of the protests in nearby Denver. Detective Faith Goodrich, a spokesperson for the Aurora department, said decisions on protocol for using an armored vehicle are left to commanders at the scene. “They take a look at the situation and make a judgment,” she said.

If protesters are peaceful and only blocking a road, the vehicles would likely not be used and kept out of sight, said Goodrich. If rocks or bottles are being tossed, or if a paramedic needs to get to an area where it may be unsafe, the vehicles might be used.

'An occupying force'

In 2015, 18 years after the 1033 program was launched, the Obama administration placed limits on it.

The protests that followed Michael Brown's death in 2014 yielded visuals of military-style vehicles and heavily armed law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was "deeply concerned" about the deployment of military equipment and vehicles in Ferguson.

The next year, President Obama issued an executive order limiting what type of equipment law enforcement could acquire from the federal government. The list of prohibited items included grenade launchers, weaponized aircraft and bayonets. MRAP vehicles were not banned, but departments were required to provide "expanded justification" for their use.

"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there's an occupying force — as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," Obama said in a May 2015 visit to Camden, New Jersey.

Image: Henderson County SWAT vehicle in Asheville, North Carolina
An officer stands near a Henderson County SWAT vehicle in Asheville, North Carolina.@ratdogfreak

The restrictions were short-lived. In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order revoking them.

"The previous Administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too 'militarized' than they were about our safety," said Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury in a press release responding to the rollbacks.

In 2019, the revived program had one of its biggest years. About 15,750 military items were transferred to law enforcement, according to an NBC analysis of DLA data. That was the second biggest year of the program, only surpassed by 17,000 distributed in 2012.

The total value of those goods reached $212.8 million, the third biggest year of the program by dollar value, topped only by 2014 and 2016.

According to the DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), of all gear transfers provided by the 1033 Program "only five percent are small arms and less than one percent are tactical vehicles."

But even with publicly available stats, one expert tells NBC News that keeping track of what law enforcement agencies are given remains a challenge.

"Record keeping is a huge problem with this program," said Kenneth Lowande, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, who has analyzed DLA 1033 data. "From a researcher's point of view, we don't have accurate data prior to 2014."

Lowande, who authored a paper challenging claims that relaxing 1033 program restrictions would help reduce violent crime and assaults on police, says it is also hard to track military supply transfers between police departments.

"There is no accurate record of what specific equipment is in the hands of which department," he said. "If you want to measure the impact of the shipments, all of that information is lost."

Hartung of the Center for International Policy said he thinks U.S. police departments "have no legitimate need for this equipment, which has been used in war zones from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen. … These are weapons of war that should have no place in domestic law enforcement."

In the past, U.S. lawmakers have periodically attempted to curtail law enforcement access to military-style gear through hearings and proposed legislation. The recent wave of protests has prompted some members of Congress to re-examine transfers of military weaponry.

U.S. Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., Brian Schatz, D-Hi., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., announced Wednesday that they were reintroducing the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which was originally brought forward in 2015. The bill calls for banning what is deemed as "offensive equipment" — such as armored vehicles and drones — as well as creating a database showing what gear has been acquired by law enforcement agencies across the U.S.

"Weapons of war don't belong in our local police departments and should never be used against the American people," said Schatz in a press release. "This is not the only thing we need to do, but as we see our communities turning into what looks more like a war zone, it's clear that we need to fix this."

DOD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the use of equipment obtained through the 1033 program and recent protests.