BOARDMAN, OH (WKBN) – A federal program has saved local police departments thousands of dollars and has provided them equipment to keep officers and people safe during dangerous situations.
A massive vehicle, known as a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or M-RAP, which one would expect to see on a military base, sits inside a garage in Boardman.
“Something like this adds the capability we never had. We wouldn’t have that capability six months or a year ago,” Commander John Elberty of the Mahoning Valley Crisis Response team said.
Several departments in the Valley got MRAPs from the federal government, including the Mahoning Valley Crisis Response Team. It is extra equipment the federal government did not need after the war ended in the Middle East.
“It opens us up to equipment that we probably would not have the monetary ability to purchase,” Elberty said.
However, on Monday, law enforcement offices across the country were told they may have to give supplies back. President Barack Obama ended long-running federal transfers of some combat-style gear to local law enforcement on Monday in an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities, saying equipment made for the battlefield should not be a tool of American criminal justice.
Grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher will no longer be provided to state and local police agencies by the federal government under Obama’s order.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a 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, nine months after an outcry over the use of riot gear and armored vehicles by police confronting protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
“It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message,” he said.
In addition to the prohibitions in his order, Obama also is placing a longer list of military equipment under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets and shields. Starting in October, police will have to get approval from their city council, mayor or some other local governing body to obtain such equipment, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on its use.
Programs that transfer surplus military-style equipment from the Pentagon and other federal agencies have been around for decades, but Congress increased spending to help departments acquire the gear in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The issue of police militarization rose to prominence last year after a white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking protests. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama said in August.
The review, published in December, showed five federal agencies spent $18 billion on programs that provided equipment, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft. At the time, the White House defended the programs as proving to be useful in many cases, such as the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. Instead of repealing the programs, Obama issued an executive order that required federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to recommend changes that make sure they are accountable and transparent.
“It would be a big blow. It would be a big blow to law enforcement across the country,” Elberty said.
In addition to the M-RAP, the Crisis Response Team has received other supplies from the program, like goggle and steel cans to store ammo and a robot to go into places officers can’t go during dangerous situations.
The equipment is free for departments or on loan from the federal government. The Crisis Response Team said the only equipment they have that may be in jeopardy is the M-RAP.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.