When locals learned that the Johnson County, Iowa, sheriff’s office had gotten hold of a massive, mine-resistant vehicle, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek reassured a skeptical public that officers would primarily use it during extreme weather events in order to save residents from the state’s extraordinary blizzards or floods.
“Essentially it’s really a rescue, recovery and transport vehicle,” Pulkrabek said in 2014.
But in the seven years since, the vehicle — which comes from the Pentagon’s much-maligned 1033 Program that arms local law enforcement with weapons, gear and vehicles leftover from the country’s foreign wars — has been used for almost anything but that.
Iowa City police, who share use of the vehicle with the sheriff’s office, staged it near last year’s racial justice protests, where officers fired tear gas at peaceful protesters for refusing to disperse. And this May, residents fumed after police drove the former war machine through a predominantly Black neighborhood to serve arrest warrants.
The outrage spurred Iowa City council members this summer to demand that the county give the vehicle back to the Pentagon.
“It is a vehicle made for wartime circumstances, and in my honest opinion, it doesn’t belong here,” city council member Janice Weiner told HuffPost.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only law enforcement agency to cite extraordinary weather as the reason it needs hardware from the military. Last year, Congress made a little-noticed tweak to the 1033 Program to give priority access for armored vehicles to police and sheriffs’ departments that claimed to need them for disaster-related emergencies, HuffPost has learned — with few checks on how the vehicles are ultimately used.
In recent years, there’s been an explosion in the number of police and sheriffs’ departments citing catastrophic storms, blizzards, and especially floods to justify why they ought to receive an armored vehicle.
HuffPost exclusively obtained hundreds of requests for armored vehicles that local agencies wrote to the Defense Department in 2017 and 2018. And in contrast to just a few years earlier, when almost no law enforcement agencies mentioned natural disasters, there were agencies from virtually every state pleading for help with disaster preparedness.
“It is a vehicle made for wartime circumstances, and in my honest opinion, it doesn’t belong here.”
There are a few reasons for law enforcement’s shifting rhetoric. Across the country, climate change is fueling more destructive and deadlier catastrophes. The U.S. has not invested in large-scale disaster preparedness, forcing local governments and law enforcement to prepare for disasters ― and pay for it ― largely on their own.
But the bigger reason may be that the Defense Department has also started to cue local police and sheriffs to make a big deal out of their role in disaster response. Within the past few years, on the forms that police and sheriffs must submit to justify their requests for armored vehicles, the Pentagon began to list natural disasters as an example justification. (The 1033 Program was created in 1996.)
Local agencies eagerly seized on this logic. In the documents HuffPost obtained, a bevy of police and sheriffs’ departments along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Georgia to Louisiana, mentioned a legendary hurricane season in their states, while New Jersey police departments recalled their total incapacitation after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
“Our resources were quickly overwhelmed and the inability to respond with adequate high water rescue vehicles severely hampered rescue operations,” the chief of police of Lacey Township, a village in New Jersey’s flood-prone Pine Barrens, wrote in a request for an up-armored Humvee in 2018. (Asked for comment, a deputy for the township said he had no memory of the request.)
Then, last year, Congress made the change to the 1033 Program that supercharged the incentives for linking climate disasters to military hardware. In its annual defense spending bill, Congress instructed the Pentagon to give the highest priority to “applications that request vehicles used for disaster-related emergency preparedness, such as high-water rescue vehicles.”
Disaster preparedness experts who spoke with HuffPost balked at the idea of flooding the country with even more military vehicles under the auspices of preparing for climate change.
Some noted that police are free to use military gear from the Pentagon however they want since no one is charged with making sure law enforcement agencies only use it for disaster response. Others pointed out that police really are responsible for safeguarding the public in the event of a climate catastrophe — and military vehicles don’t do much of anything to help police prepare for that role.
“I can guarantee you that none of these police departments putting climate or extreme weather down have emergency management plans to use it [that way],” said Leigh Anderson, a Chicago State University researcher and auditor who oversees police departments in Illinois and Missouri.
For years, law enforcement officer training across the country has emphasized offensive tactics, such as practice SWAT raids and active shooter drills. Officers in most jurisdictions are woefully underprepared for rescue operations, Anderson said, with leadership focusing instead on accruing the right equipment.
“When it comes to natural disasters, officers are ill-prepared for anything that happens outside the normal police department happenings,” she said.
Some of the country’s most critical work is to update infrastructure — to build neighborhoods that don’t flood and roads that don’t buckle in the first place — so that communities can withstand increasing natural disasters, said Rune Storesund, the executive director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.
The country has shunted the role of disaster response onto underprepared police and sheriffs’ departments instead of developing comprehensive response capabilities, a lack of preparedness that will become more deadly as climate change fuels more extreme floods, fires, freezes, heat waves and storms. The federal government could direct routine funding for infrastructure upgrades and oversight, bolstering safety planning instead of simply sending armored trucks.
“I’m having a hard time imagining how these military vehicles are directly relatable to climate-related events,” Storesund said.
It’s not that military vehicles would be useless during natural catastrophes. Police are responsible for public safety when extreme weather strikes. They are often charged with running evacuations at the onset of a hurricane or a fire, retrieving people left behind, and maintaining order in disaster zones. In such a crisis, the appeal of a truck made to withstand roadside bombs is clear. Many blast-proof vehicles, such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, can drive over fallen trees, withstand high winds, ford several feet of water and keep going at moderate speeds if their tires are punctured.
But an obvious consequence of giving police militarized equipment under the auspices of preparing for natural disasters is that police are free to use it for more pernicious purposes.
The surplus war gear the Pentagon doles out to local police has fueled a rise in the use of destructive SWAT tactics, like door-busting and using chemical agents, to carry out routine police work like serving warrants and searching for drugs.
Military gear has become a fixture at civil demonstrations. In an ugly irony, law enforcement agencies have even used military-style vehicles to brutalize people protesting climate destruction, such as at the 2016 assault in Standing Rock, North Dakota, on Native American pipeline protesters.
“I can guarantee you that none of these police departments putting climate or extreme weather down have emergency management plans to use it [that way].”
In the requests HuffPost obtained, many agencies outright acknowledged that they would use military vehicles both for disaster rescues and other, more destructive tasks.
Northwoods, Missouri, which requested an armored vehicle in order to police Black Lives Matter protesters in 2017, as HuffPost reported in August, said in its request that it would also use the vehicle to respond to floods, tornadoes and ice storms. If the current policy had been in place at the time, the Pentagon would have fast-tracked a jurisdiction like Northwoods to receive the vehicle.
Kit Carson County, a storm-battered stretch of Colorado where the sheriff requested an MRAP to rescue motorists from floods and hail, said it would more often use the vehicle to serve high-risk drug-related search warrants. The police chief of Malden, Missouri, a small force of just 14 officers, noted that the region was one of the hardest-hit by the historic flooding of 2017. He requested an up-armored Humvee to check on residents stranded by future storms — and to carry out drug raids.
In an interview with HuffPost, Brad Kunkel, the current sheriff of Johnson County, Iowa, now claims that the county envisioned lots of uses for its MRAP besides just disaster rescues, although he said the department has used it for a flood rescue.
Making police primarily responsible for disaster response also means disaster response can be tied to abusive police practices. Most New Jersey towns requesting armored vehicles, including those that emphasized they would be used as disaster-response vehicles, proposed paying for the vehicles’ upkeep with funds from asset forfeiture. Although New Jersey recently curtailed the practice, state law at the time permitted police to fund operations by seizing cash and valuables from people accused but not convicted of crimes.
During past disasters, police have injured and killed people they suspected of looting. In the most infamous case, New Orleans police fired AK-47s at citizens fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, then tried to cover it up. An investigation later blamed the deadly incident on the department’s pervasive culture of corruption.
And at a time when a huge share of the public is angered by police impunity, climate disasters offer a friendlier explanation for police militarization.
Some law enforcement agencies have used extreme weather as an explanation of last resort when the public clearly opposes police use of former military vehicles. Last fall, police in New London, Connecticut, obtained a mine-resistant Cougar through the 1033 Program for hostage scenarios and active shooter drills. After locals and the city council objected to keeping the vehicle, police framed their a final argument around the need for a rescue vehicle during storms and blizzards.
For Weiner, the Iowa City council member, the vehicle in her county offers a dark reminder of her time working at the U.S. embassy in Turkey in the 1990s during the height of the country’s conflict with Kurdish rebels.
“I’ve seen plenty of armored vehicles in the streets,” she said. “It’s an atmosphere of intimidation and not an atmosphere I want in my town.”