By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Law enforcement agencies in nearly 20 communities across New Mexico have acquired Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — armored military carriers known as MRAPs — to patrol the streets in towns across the state.
But the police department in New Mexico’s largest city is considering getting rid of its behemoth.
“There are a number of different ways we might to use it, or we could give it back,” Albuquerque Police Department Communications and Community Outreach Director Janet Blair told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have a number of vehicles we use in similar ways so (the MRAP) might be superfluous.”
The federal government created what’s called the 1033 program, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to disperse spare military equipment to local law enforcement agencies that qualify. With overseas military operations winding down in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, there seems to be plenty of equipment to go around.
And for local law enforcement, it’s all essentially free.
“The only cost we incurred was the gas it took to drive it back,” Ruidoso Police Chief Joe S. Magill told New Mexico Watchdog in June of the practically mint-condition MRAP his department picked up in Sealy, Texas. “The cost was zero dollars.”
Law enforcement officials say the bullet-proof MRAPs are useful in armed hostage situations as well as evacuating civilians in emergencies.
“There’s a blurring of the military mission and the civilian police mission and that is a dangerous thing,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “We want our civilian police departments not to lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with people on a day-to-day basis with constitutional rights, and we want them to use a minimum amount of force to bring suspects into a court of law.”
Blair said Albuquerque Chief of Police Gorden Eden is “considering a bunch of different options on the table right now,” including sharing the MRAP with other agencies such as the Albuquerque Fire Department or the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“It’s a heat-resistant vehicle,” Blair said, “and if we had, let’s say, a blowing gas line that exploded, that would be one way to use it.”
Blair said the MRAP was acquired “about six months ago,” before Eden was named APD chief.
APD has been the focus of a series of protests, triggered by the shooting death of a homeless man in March. Since 2010, Albuquerque police have shot and killed 27 people, and the U.S. Justice Department issued a report saying that APD has a pattern of using excessive force.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’d like to see APD return the MRAP.
“I think that, at least as a symbolic gesture, it would signal a skepticism about the department’s use of military-grade weaponry and whether it’s actually necessary,” Simonson said.
“Returning it might be the beginning of an acknowledgement that maybe they’ve gone down the road and they’re trying to find their way back,” Lynch said.
Blair said a decision may come within a matter of days.
“We are actively reviewing the uses (of the MRAP) … but there is no final decision yet,” she told New Mexico Watchdog last Friday.
Here’s the list of the 18 law enforcement entities who have MRAPs, according to documents obtained in June by New Mexico Watchdog from the New Mexico Department of Public Safety:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski