Preston, Idaho is a town of roughly 5,000 people that earned brief notoriety a decade ago as the setting for the whimsical film “Napoleon Dynamite.” It is blessedly devoid of violent crime, and has no need for its six-officer police department.
Yet Chief Ken Geddes believes that Preston’s superficial placidity disguises the potential for apocalyptic violence. At least that’s what he’s saying to pre-empt potential criticism of his decision to acquire a combat-grade armored vehicle from the Department of Homeland Security.
The Preston Police Department is one of two in Idaho to receive a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) through the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security purchased more than 2,700 of the combat vehicles – which were developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan – for distribution to local police departments and sheriff’s offices across the country. Most of them have very few, if any, miles on their odometers, and were scheduled to be cut up for scrap.
Through the LESO program, law enforcement agencies can receive MRAPs free of charge (apart from the initial expense to the taxpayers incurred in manufacturing them). Hundreds of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country have eagerly applied for the vehicles, urgently insisting that they meet previously unknown needs that didn’t become apparent until the Pentagon made the war-fighting vehicles available.
When I asked Chief Geddes why a police department in a town the size of Preston needs a military assault vehicle, his immediate response – expressed in a tone of theatrical indignation — was to invoke the Sandy Hook massacre.
“There isn’t much violent crime in Preston – but how much does it take?” Chief Geddes responded. “There wasn’t much crime in that little Connecticut town [Newton] before Sandy Hook – but it would have been nice if they would have had an MRAP on the day of the school shooting.”
He also took issue with the assumption that because Preston is small and relatively tranquil, his department doesn’t need to expand its paramilitary capacity: “Boise has a much larger population, and much larger police force, and much greater capacity than we do – but are we to believe that the people in Boise are more valuable than the people in Preston?” This assessment of relative value omits rational calculations of risk. It also assumes that enhancing police capacity conduces to public safety, which is at very best a thoroughly questionable assumption.
Although the advertised law enforcement purpose served by MRAPs and other armored vehicles is force protection, Chief Geddes suggests that the vehicle could also be used to evacuate citizens who are threatened by an active shooter. That claim is robustly implausible: There isn’t a recorded instance in which a SWAT team responding to an active shooter made anything other than “officer safety” is chief operational priority, and Preston isn’t likely to set a precedent – assuming that such a situation were ever to arise in that bucolic southeastern Idaho town.
Chief Geddes points out that his department and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office (which is headquartered in Preston) are receiving training and assistance from “a military agency” regarding the operation and maintenance of the MRAP. This blending of functions and equipment summons concerns about law enforcement militarization that the Chief quickly and impatiently dismisses.
“I’m not at all concerned about it,” Chief Geddes insisted. “We’re not looking in that direction in any way. But I have to say that in the event of a Hurricane Katrina-style disaster – an earthquake, or a flood, or another large emergency – we’d welcome their assistance.”
Public concerns about the militarization of domestic law enforcement occur because the public “lags” behind their protectors in perceiving dangers and needs, according to Geddes. The general population simply doesn’t have the preternatural sense of incipient danger Chief Geddes acquired through years of patrolling the inhospitable streets of Preston and the danger-laden back roads of Franklin County as a sheriff’s deputy.
“Law enforcement may know things you don’t know,” he told me. “All you think about is sunshine and happiness, but police can’t go in with their eyes shut.” Although Geddes maintains that he’s received no negative feedback from the public in Preston, he readily deploys the familiar “uniforms that guard” trope in dealing with potential critics: “People who resist this trend, who say that we shouldn’t be getting equipment like this, live under the protection of what the protest.”
From Chief Geddes’ perspective, it’s unlikely that police can ever be too powerful, because their conspicuous presence is the only thing that prevents violent chaos from descending on society.
“How many people are saved because of law enforcement – because of crimes that weren’t committed, or violations that didn’t occur?” he asks. “How many people are alive because we patrol the streets and highways? How many people would have committed crimes if we weren’t there? Sometimes they didn’t do anything because they saw the force [that the police represent].”
Chief Geddes, who intended that those questions be taken as rhetorical in nature, is apparently unaware that they were answered more than four decades ago. In 1972, with financial backing and technical assistance provided by the Police Foundation, the Kansas City Police conducted a year-long study to measure the deterrent effect of police patrol. That survey concluded that police patrols had no documented impact on the crime rate.
Police patrols over plentiful opportunity for pro-active intervention to obtain revenue, or enforce regulations that do nothing to protect persons and property. This means that they are worse than useless from the perspective of those who value individual liberty more than state-imposed conformity. It’s reasonable to say that Chief Geddes resides in the other camp.
In an op-ed column he wrote for the Preston Citizen newspaper, Chief Geddes admonished the public to be “thankful” for Pentagon’s generosity in providing the MRAP to his department: “I appreciate our government and our military for the security they give us and for their help to increase our strength here in our schools and home.”
The problem, of course, is that once police are given access to exotic instruments of repression, they will find a reason to use them. This is illustrated by the ease and haste with which the Taser – introduced as a substitute for firearms in situations involving deadly force – has become an implement of pain compliance used to administer summary punishment upon Mundanes who discomfit their uniformed overlords in any way.
An even better illustration of this dreadful trend is the promiscuous use of SWAT teams: When introduced in the late 1960s, SWAT units were described as special-purpose teams to be deployed only in extraordinary circumstances, such as armed robberies and hostage situations. Now, however, there are, on average, approximately 220 SWAT-style raids each day. Won’t the acquisition of military-grade hardware to police departments simply exacerbate this tendency?
“That is a valid concern,” admitted Nampa Police Lt. Tim Randall, who represents the department’s Office of Professional Standards, when I posed that question to him. He also acknowledged that the department had received a great deal of public comment “concerning the possibility of police militarization, which we can certainly understand.”
Nampa, a city of about 70,000 people, has a crime rate slightly above the state average, but well below the national average. Why would its police department (which last year acquired two military-issue Humvees from the National Guard) need an armored combat vehicle designed to protect soldiers from land mines and sniper fire?
“Well, first of all, it’s free,” observed Lt. Randall. “It’s also the case that even a small agency like the Nampa PD has a big need for armored protection.” Employing the same Department of Homeland Security boilerplate language retailed in press releases from other departments around the country, the Nampa PD insists that the need for the MRAP is underscored by “a rise in mass shootings and incidents of terrorism” nation-wide.”
That rationale is rooted in a lie: Mass shootings have not been increasing, and domestic terrorism – a category that doesn’t include the FBI’s Homeland Security Theater operations – is all but non-existent.
Although Lt. Randall emphasizes that he doesn’t anticipate that the Nampa Tactical Response Team would “drive up to a house” in an MRAP on a routine warrant enforcement call, he reported that the vehicle had already been used twice in the first two weeks after the department obtained it. The first was a response to a carjacking at knife-point, the other a call involving a suicidal man. Like Chief Geddes, Lt. Randall also believes that the MRAP is valuable as a “psychological deterrent” to public disorder.
The obvious question is: Whom, exactly, does the Nampa PD seek to “deter”? I think the answer was embedded in Lt. Randall’s explanation of the department’s “need” for the vehicle: “Here in Idaho, practically everybody around here has a gun, and when we go on a call it is useful to have a vehicle that will enhance the safety of the responding officers.” He also pointed out that after the Pentagon-provided MRAP arrived, the department took its aging armored vehicle to its gun range and discovered that “rifle fire would just go right through it. We had it for years, and didn’t know that it offered no protection against ballistic arms fire.”
This belated discovery would be considered alarming if we ignore the fact that this was the first time gunfire had ever been directed at the vehicle. So far, the Nampa TRT has suffered only one fatality – Corporal Jed Webb, who died of a heart attack earlier this year at age 51.
It has been more than eighty years since a Nampa police officer died in the line of duty. Yet the people running that department appear to be convinced that their safety depends on their ability to “deter” the gun-owning public.
The Pentagon has a stock of about 20,000 MRAPs, most of which will eventually find their way into local police arsenals, along with Predator-style drones and other military hardware field-tested overseas. Although an MRAP has no discernible practical value as a tool for protection of life and property, it is tremendously useful as a prop in the ongoing campaign to indoctrinate police regarding the unacceptable danger to “officer safety” posed by an armed public — and the need for conspicuous displays of potential force to deter potential threats.
“General Colin Powell’s Doctrine of the U.S. Armed Forces is that the United States should be the `meanest dog in town’ to frighten a potential enemy,” wrote career law enforcement officer –and SWAT instructor – Edward Leach in the October 2001 issue of Police Chief magazine. “When force is used, it should be with `overwhelming strength and no half-way measures.’ In law enforcement, these principles are routinely applied in both field and tactical operations. … Law enforcement [application] of the Powell Doctrine is clear: have overwhelming and superior resources available, primarily as a deterrent, but use them decisively when needed.”
Leach, who until a year ago was Undersheriff of Idaho’s Kootenai County, unabashedly depicted police as a military occupation force. He doubtless understands the message being sent when police in a town the size of Preston acquire a combat-grade armored vehicle. So should we.
In this scene from “Napoleon Dynamite,” a pair of gang-bangers in Preston act as private peace officers, peacefully intervening to protect property against aggressive violence – and they didn’t need an MRAP to do so: