When police and federal agents investigated reports last November that more than 100 pounds of explosives were stored under a home on Dorian Street, the Boise Police Department sent a mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicle to the scene.
The vehicle, obtained one month earlier through a Defense Department program to reuse surplus military vehicles, was brought to serve as a blast barrier between the home of suspect Joshua Finch and a neighbor’s house.
“We were able to protect that house,” Deputy Chief Scott Mulcahy said, though police made sure nothing blew up.
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the resulting unrest that led police in combat gear to roll out military-style vehicles during lawful protests have sparked questions about whether a militarized police response causes more problems than it solves.
Through the federal program, Idaho law enforcement agencies have received at least 2,905 pieces of donated military equipment worth more than $9.3 million, mostly during the past three years, according to the Idaho State Police, which keeps track of the items given.
They range from $1 pliers to mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles worth anywhere from $412,000 to $733,000. Last September, the Idaho State Police requested a cargo plane. The vehicles went to six police departments: Boise, Caldwell, Nampa, Pocatello, Post Falls and Preston.
Local police inventory from the program includes hundreds of military firearms, including M16 rifles, and accessories for both rifles and pistols. At least one police department has received more military firearms than it has officers on its force.
Law enforcement agencies in several small towns and counties in Idaho have an outsized inventory compared with the number of people in their localities.
The police department in Preston, a city of 5,000 in southeastern Idaho, has an mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicle it requested last fall. Police Chief Ken Geddes declined to answer questions from the Idaho Statesman over the phone, citing the controversy around the militarization of police. He said he would answer questions if a reporter visited him at his office.
In an article he wrote for the Idaho State Journal, Geddes said the vehicle would be available to neighboring counties and the regional SWAT teams that serve Preston.
“In any situation where there is a threat of gun violence, this vehicle may be used,” he wrote. “Our department has officers that have been trained and have personally used these armored vehicles in real-world operations overseas. They feel this vehicle will be an asset in our area, just as it was in combat situations.”
The chief of the Grangeville Police Department, which received an armored vehicle and 15 firearms, did not respond to messages.
Not just weapons
Not all of the stuff provided to local agencies is what most people think of as “military” equipment, however. The program has sent Idaho agencies a vast array of cleaning supplies, office furniture, power tools and computers.
The Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office received an exercise bike, a cross trainer and a treadmill. The Rigby Police Department obtained two refrigerators. Several counties have received equipment that can be used for rescue or emergency operations.
At a news conference Aug. 26, Mike Masterson, Boise’s police chief, said there are only a few instances in which the use of the mine-resistant vehicle — which he calls an emergency rescue vehicle — would be appropriate.
“This is designed as a weapon that will help protect us from high-caliber rifles and from blasts,” Masterson said.
“It’s not appropriate that they even be present at those types of events. You’re not going to see it in managing crowds. We’re not going to park it down at the Treefort festival because of something that may happen. These are designed for the high-risk situations that are largely life and death.”
The Boise Police Department has worked hard to build trust with its residents and it would be a step back to use the vehicle inappropriately, Masterson said. The public would have a legitimate concern questioning its use at a protest or gathering and thinking the police overreacted, Masterson said.
“We’re not seeing a boogeyman behind every tree, but the fact we have not had a mass-casualty incident in Boise, Idaho, is a matter of luck and it’s a matter of good police work,” he said. “I just want to make sure that, God forbid, that event should happen in our area, I can at least protect the officers that I’m bringing in harm’s way to go in and help save others.”
The vehicle could be used in a sniper situation in which members of the public or officers were shot and were pinned down, preventing rescuers from reaching them, Masterson said. The vehicle could be parked between a sniper and injured people, allowing them to be brought out safely.
Apart from the home with explosives, he said the only other use of the vehicle so far came on Aug. 18, when a Boise resident said a man he didn’t know pointed a gun at him as the resident walked past the man’s home after 10:30 at night. The suspect barricaded himself inside his home, and the surrounding property didn’t provide officers with any cover.
The mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicle was used to give SWAT team members a safe barrier and prevented the suspect from fleeing, Masterson said. The man later gave himself up and was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace.