Tiny Richland Center, population 5,184, in 2019 received a hulking mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, valued at $767,000 from the Pentagon.
It’s the kind of vehicle that was used by the U.S. military on the highways of Iraq to defend against IEDs, yet one that now sits in the garages of several rural Wisconsin police departments.
Richland Center’s MRAP is one of at least six of the military vehicles at the disposal of police departments located within a roughly 80-mile radius of La Crosse. Vernon County Sheriff’s Department, the city of La Crosse Police Department, the Grant County Sheriff’s Department, and police departments in Tomah and Winona also have their own MRAPs.
Weighing in at up to 18 tons, with a gun turret on top and standing up to 13 feet tall, the MRAPs are imposing vehicles that look distinctly out of place on a city street or country road.
The vehicles are just one part of an over $5 million arsenal of weaponry and gear received by local law enforcement agencies from the military through the controversial 1033 program. The haul includes 154 assault rifles, thermal imaging systems, pistols, night vision sniper-scopes, a mine detector, and other pieces of assorted tactical military gear.
When a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, sparking widespread protests, the police responded by rolling out MRAP trucks and officers kitted out in warrior gear. The images of militarized police confronting unarmed protestors on U.S. streets towns put a spotlight on the 1033 program, and prompted calls for an end to the program, which many feared had helped foster a warrior mentality among police.
However, for now at least, the Pentagon program that has transferred billions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment to local police departments continues.
In the wake of the Ferguson protests, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, and large-caliber weapons and ammunition to police. At the time, he said the use of military equipment made police seem like an occupying force, alienated from local communities. But, Obama’s executive order left most of the program intact, and it was rescinded by President Trump in 2017.
Since receiving an MRAP valued at $766,000 in 2014, the La Crosse Police Department has not used the 1033 program, according to the public database that tracks the transfers of military equipment. The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department received 20 assault rifles through the program in 2017 and has picked up some small pieces of equipment from the program as recently as last October.
The massive demonstrations since the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day have again brought the issue of militarized police to the foreground. There’s a bipartisan push in Congress to scrap the 1033 program, although it remains to be seen if the measure could win the support necessary to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
Launched in the 1990s, the 1033 program went into overdrive after 9/11 and has resulted in the transfer of some $7. billion of surplus military equipment to police departments across the country.
Radley Balko’s 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces demonstrated how the program was among the elements that led to increasingly aggressive policing tactics, especially in the form of SWAT teams, from big cities to some of the nation’s smallest towns.
*UPDATE: Since publishing this story, we’ve learned that in 2017, the La Crosse County Sheriff’s department used a $225,000 Homeland Security grant to purchase an 18,500 pound BearCat armored vehicle equipped with a hydraulic ram that can deploy tear gas while withstanding 50-caliber bullets. The department sold an older BearCat for $80,000 and used those funds and the federal grant to buy the vehicle for $315,000.