The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office anticipates using its new armored personnel carrier to rescue people in an emergency, but the acquisition of the retired military vehicle has drawn strong criticism from residents who view the vehicle as unnecessary militarization of local law enforcement.
The Sheriff’s Office acquisition of the MaxxPro MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, is part of a national trend. Police and sheriff’s offices across the country have obtained the former military vehicles for little or no cost as a result of the end of American deployments to Iraq and reduced troop presence in Afghanistan.
“There was a very large deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Dan Bender, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. “It would have been a waste of taxpayer money to have them sit out and not used.”
The police and sheriff’s office in Farmington also have MRAPs. A Farmington Police official did not return messages seeking comment on the department’s use of the carrier.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office obtained the vehicle for no cost from the Colorado Department of Defense Excess Property Program and spent about $4,000 retrofitting it with new benches, lights and sirens. The vehicle, which is much larger than a Humvee, has no weapons.
Bender said the backlash against the vehicle misunderstands its purpose.
“Part of that is people just not understanding how the vehicle is being used and deployed,” he said. “We view it truly as a rescue vehicle.”
The MRAP replaces an older armored vehicle known as the Aardvark that had been in the Sheriff’s Office fleet for at least 15 years.
“It was old and wore out when we got it, but it did provide us a much higher level of protection than we had with patrol cars,” Bender said.
The MRAP was put into service in July after four deputies were trained to drive it. To date, it has not been used in any emergencies. It also did not take part in recent school-shooter training exercises.
The MRAP has made a few public appearances, including one at Durango Harley-Davidson for an Emergency Services Appreciation Day and one at True West Rodeo at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
The Sheriff’s Office envisions using it to rescue people in situations such as flash floods or to evacuate neighbors or bystanders during an armed standoff.
“I would say we could probably get 10 or 12 people in it and make multiple trips if necessary,” Bender said.
Bender recounted a long list of incidents in which sheriff’s deputies were fired on or threatened by gunmen. The MRAP could be used to protect deputies in such incidents, he said.
Bender said at least 65 law-enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty in the U.S. this year.
Still, some question the need for local law enforcement to have a military vehicle capable of withstanding exploding mines. The Albuquerque Police Department recently got rid of its MRAP, saying it’s not necessary, The Albuquerque Journal reported.
A previous article in this newspaper about the Sheriff’s Office acquiring the vehicle drew many vehement comments opposing the move.
And the American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report critical of the use of armored vehicles while executing search warrants. In one case, the presence of an armored vehicle obscured officers’ view of an approaching armed suspect, the organization said. The ACLU said the vehicles can encourage overly aggressive policing.
Bender said the Sheriff’s Office anticipated some backlash from residents.
“We accept that some people are intimidated by law enforcement in general,” he said.
The Board of County Commissioners oversees the Sheriff’s Office but largely takes a hands-off approach aside from determining the annual budget. Commissioner Bobby Lieb said he is reluctant to second-guess the sheriff’s decisions about what he needs.
The commissioners never discussed the armored vehicle acquisition.
“He clearly had it within his budget to get it and fix it up, so it never came before the commissioners,” Lieb said.
Bender said the vehicle is much better than the old, lightly armored Aardvark.
“There have been times I’ve gone out in the Aardvark and felt nervous,” he said. “I would feel safe going anywhere in the MaxxPro.”