2014-09-19 / Community

Residents raise questions in wake of events in Missouri

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins has addressed ongoing concerns over a military surplus vehicle acquired by the city last fall in the wake of news from Ferguson, Missouri, where police responded to riots after an officer shot and killed a suspect. The incident followed a report from the American Civil Liberties Union decrying the militarization of local police departments.

“That is a very scathing report,” Googins told the city council at its Sept. 3 meeting, referring to the ACLU study, “but it does not tell the whole story.”

The ACLU report, titled “War Comes Home,” was released in June, prior to the incident in Ferguson, but has gained national attention since then. It tracked 800 deployments of SWAT teams in 20 law enforcement jurisdictions from 2011 to 2012 and found 79 percent of those tactical actions were simply to execute a search warrant, typically for illegal drugs.

“The use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people’s homes,” read the report. “Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”

Although the report did not directly tie deployment of SWAT teams to an increased flow of surplus military equipment to local police departments, Rachel Healy, director of communications for the ACLU of Maine, has made that connection.

Since 2006, Maine police departments have received more than $12 million in military surplus. Much of that has come on the form of basic supplies, like office equipment and motor oil, but cop-watchers have noticed the influx of armor-plated vehicles.

“While we haven’t seen a situation approaching what’s happened in Ferguson here in Maine, the steady collection of military vehicles means the capacity exists,” Healy wrote in a blog post on the Maine ACLU website. “Just the existence of this militarized equipment often tends to escalate situations when we should be attempting to de-escalate them.”

However, Googins sees the situation differently.

“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to acquire that equipment and use it appropriately to protect the community,” he said. “But you don’t see us patrolling the streets of South Portland with it. We have that vehicle to assist us in the worst scenarios you can imagine.”

The vehicle in question is an MRAP, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, designed to survive rolling over an improvised explosive device like the ones used against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last year, with overseas operations winding down, the Department of Homeland Security bought up more than 2,700 of the combat-ready vehicles — many reportedly unused, with zero miles on the odometer — for free distribution to police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide through the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office.

Seven police departments in Maine were approved for the surplus vehicles, each of which dresses out at 19 tons and costs $658,000 to build. Municipal police departments in Brunswick, Sanford and Old Orchard Beach were also given MRAPs to add to their fleets, as did sheriff’s departments in Cumberland, Franklin and Oxford counties.

South Portland took possession of its vehicle in late September 2013, sending two officers to Pennsylvania to drive it to Maine, then sending it to the Maine Military Authority in Limestone to be repainted from desert brown to olive drab. The MRAP had about 7,000 miles on it, and was likely used to train soldiers before deployment and never saw action.

The MaxxPro MRAP, like the one now owned by South Portland, carries a two-man crew, plus four to six passengers, as well as a turret-topping “gunner.” The 21-foot-long hulking vehicle has an 8.7-liter turbocharged diesel engine that gets about one mile to the gallon and has a 62-foot turning radius, per the spec sheet distributed by Illinois-based Navistar Defense, which built it.

In February, social media lit up when local residents spotted the vehicle in the parking lot of city hall, where local students got an opportunity to see it and other emergency vehicles up close. Dozens of people who spotted the vehicle took to Twitter and Facebook to question the need for it. Those same outlets have reignited with similar questions in the past few weeks, following news reports from Ferguson.

“I am first concerned because I wonder why South Portland needs an excessive vehicle like this,” wrote area resident Fred Follansbee in an Aug. 23 email to the Sentry. “I am also concerned that some day a police force, inexperienced with riot situations, like South Portland, might engage in misguided excessive force against our citizens.”

“How much will this cost us taxpayers to operate and maintain?” asked Kandi-Lee Hoy on the SPPD Facebook page. “We don’t need this thing. We have the Air National Guard right here in town if anything as big as the Boston bombing happens. ‘What if’ is not a good enough reason to have this thing.”

“What I would say is that when people stop shooting at us, we can be not as concerned for the safety of our people,” said Googins, in a February interview. “But the fact is that there are people out there who want to do harm to us, or to our citizens. We have to be prepared.

“We are very fortunate to have this asset,” he added. “To have local property taxes support an acquisition like this, even for the less expensive civilian versions Portland and the state police have, it just wouldn’t happen.”

In an interview this past Monday, Googins declined to say how events in Ferguson have affected his thinking on how best to deploy the MRAP.

“I’m not going to comment on Ferguson,” he said. “I was not there and only know what I’ve seen on the news.”

However, Googins did say the vehicle has only been used twice this year, once in early spring and again in late June. Both incidents, the first on Wells Road in Cape Elizabeth and the second on Main Street, involved a person who barricaded himself in a building and fired shots at police.

Since 2009, South Portland has shared a tactical unit with Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, hence the deployment to Wells Road. The joint unit is not longer referred to locally as a SWAT team.

In that incident, the MRAP was used to safely transport members of the tactical unit to positions around the home.

“Obviously, we had to contain the house so the person who was in it would not flee and endanger the neighborhood,” said Googins, noting that a primary advantage of the MRAP is its crew capacity. A vehicle previously used by the tactical team could carry just three officers, plus a driver.

Both incidents in which the MRAP was used ended when police discovered, in one case by sending in a “robot,” that the shooter had committed suicide.

“We have heard there are concerns in the community because we have one of these vehicles,” Googins said. “My comments are that it will afford protection for our officers and in any situation involving the potential for serious harm. It could save the lives of our officers, or we could use it to rescue people.”

The MRAP also was deployed once in 2013, to serve what Googins called a “high-risk warrant,” in which armed resistance was anticipated.

“When we are serving warrants we run it through a threat matrix and when it raises to a certain level we send out the specially trained tactical team rather than regular officers,” Googins said.

He did not say whether a weapon was used or found during that incident. However, the ACLU study found that weapons were located in 35 percent of cases when a SWAT team was sent in to serve a warrant, because weapons were believed to be present in the home.

Still, Googins said the MRAP is held to very strict guidelines.

“We have procedures in place,” he said. “It doesn’t go out for just any reason. If we don’t have a certain level of threat, we look at procedures other than a tactical response.

“There has been incredible national attention of late regarding equipment like this, but I am not ashamed to say we participate in that (Law Enforcement Support Office) program,” Googins said. “We have done that for years and we have benefited from some very nice equipment, not all of it military surplus.”

For example, he said, in 2010 the South Portland Police Department was able to get a used plow truck.

“It has 30,000 miles on it, but it did save us $25,000 because we did not have to go out and buy one,” Googins said. “So, there is a great benefit to the taxpayer from us participating in this program.

“And, as far as the tactical vehicle goes, the community ought to be pleased that we are now prepared to respond to about any type of high-risk event.”

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