Our Towns Are Not War Zones: Police Militarization in MA


The debate on police militarization, rumbling for years, has been thrust into the national spotlight after protests in Ferguson, Missouri were met with heavily armed and armored police forces acting more like combatants than peacekeepers. This approach to policing is made possible by the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which distributes surplus military equipment for free to police departments who request it and simply pay the cost of shipping. 1033 was quietly conducted for over two decades before becoming the subject of scrutiny, but now the Department of Defense has released a huge trove of data on transfers to local departments.

Thankfully, the Marshall Project has organized this data into a simple tool that displays the transfers for each local jurisdiction across the United States. Looking through the Massachusetts data, most police departments involved in the program received a few hundred or few thousand dollars worth of equipment, typically rifles and pistols. Many others received high-dollar items with peaceful uses, such as dump trucks, utility trucks, and snow plows. But buried among these innocuous transfers are some incredibly concerning items that simply don’t belong in a local police department.

One of the most widely criticized excesses of 1033 is its distribution of MRAPs, or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and Massachusetts received its fair share. Designed to withstand gunfire and explosions, these heavily armored vehicles weigh about 18 tons. They don’t come with gun emplacements as standard, but they do look like they’ve been plucked right out of a battlefield. They’ have been known to damage roads and their intimidating appearance feeds public fears and flies in the face of community policing. Police departments in Haverhill (population 60,967), New Bedford (pop. 95,072), and Rehoboth (pop. 11,608, just east of Providence) have all recently acquired MRAPs, worth between $658,000 and $689,000.

The Hamburg Police Department's MRAP, shown here with Lt. James J. Koch, spends most of its time parked at the Public Works garage. (Buffalo News file photo)

An MRAP in Hamburg, NY. Photo courtesy Buffalo News

The Norfolk Police Department and the Massachusetts Department of Correction in Milford didn’t receive MRAPs, but they did get 107mm mortar carriers worth $205,000 each. One previously reported transfer was to West Springfield, where they received two grenade launchers worth a total of $1,440 that nobody in the department is actually trained to use. It’s impossible to tell how a mortar or grenade launcher could be responsibly used by a police department. The wide area of destruction caused by these weapons, useful for fighting armies, would be reckless to employ against even the worst criminals.

What this is all used for is not an academic question — the 1033 program actually requires departments use what their equipment within one year or return it. So while they only have to pay the shipping for these military vehicles and weapons, this “use it or lose it” policy pressures police to deploy them in their communities. Driving heavily armored vehicles around town comes with side effects, making the community feel more dangerous than it really is and straining relations between the public and police.

While the situation is dire, the huge amount of activism around this issue inspires hope that change may be possible. Digital Fourth is doing our part. We have drafted a state bill to combat police militarization and restore public trust and respect in law enforcement. The bill would forbid police departments from accepting armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, and certain other types of equipment for free from the federal government, instead requiring them to purchase such items with their own budgets. This will discourage departments from obtaining unnecessary vehicles and weapons, focusing their 1033 applications on more practical items. Once the bill is introduced, we’ll need your help to pass it, so stay tuned!

If you’d like to call the relevant municipalities to ask them why their police departments have obtained this kind of equipment and what they’re planning to use this equipment for, here are the numbers:

Haverhill (Mayor Jim Fiorentini): 978-374-2300
Department of Correction (Thomas E. Dickhaut, Acting Commissioner): 508-422-3300
New Bedford (Mayor Jon Mitchell): 508-979-1410
Norfolk (Board of Selectmen): 508-440-2855
Rehoboth (Jeffrey Ritter, Town Administrator): 508-252-3758 extension 1

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