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Jim Kenyon: With New MRAP, Vermont Troopers Can Be Road Warriors

Vermont State Police recently acquired this "armored tactical vehicle" through the U.S. Defense Department's national military surplus program. The MRAP, as its known, will be kept at the National Guard's armory in Windsor and available for use throughout southern Vermont. "It's a great piece of equipment, however we hope we never need it," said Col. Tom L'Esperance. State police will remove the machine gun turret on top of the vehicle. (Vermont State Police photograph)

Vermont State Police recently acquired this "armored tactical vehicle" through the U.S. Defense Department's national military surplus program. The MRAP, as its known, will be kept at the National Guard's armory in Windsor and available for use throughout southern Vermont. "It's a great piece of equipment, however we hope we never need it," said Col. Tom L'Esperance. State police will remove the machine gun turret on top of the vehicle. (Vermont State Police photograph)

The Vermont State Police, which more and more resembles a military organization, has now acquired the ultimate big-boy toy: An “armored tactical vehicle” that weighs about 40,000 pounds, stands 10 feet tall and is capable of deflecting roadside bombs.

Last I knew, there weren’t any of those along Interstate 89, but it’s too bad the Tunbridge World’s Fair dropped its demolition derby. This metallic beast, which state police plan to house at the National Guard Armory in Windsor, would be unstoppable.

How did the state police obtain a vehicle that makes a Sherman tank seem like a Ford Focus? And why did they think it’s needed in one of the safest states in the Union?

The state police tapped into a Pentagon program that has become more popular for cops around the country than Dunkin’ Donuts. In 1996, Congress used the National Defense Authorization Act to create something called the “1033 program” that allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. In 2012, the Defense Department gave away a record $546 million in vehicles and weaponry, according to The Huffington Post last October.

Last year, the Vermont State Police asked the Defense Department for one of its used Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, known in military jargon as an MRAP (pronounced EM-rap). MRAPs were credited with saving the lives of countless U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from roadside bomb blasts. But with the U.S. getting out of the war business — at least for the time being — the military has more MRAPs than it knows what to do with. The Defense Department is trying to get rid of 13,000 of the vehicles because “they have outlived their original purpose,” The Wall Street Journal reported in January.

A new MRAP costs about $500,000. So, to get one for free (other than about $8,000 in shipping charges) sounds like quite a bargain.

I’m not sure it’s cause for celebration, though.

With its SWAT team, assault rifles and camo outfits, the Vermont State Police already looks and acts too much like the military for my comfort. The last thing it needs is another war toy that can be used to intimidate people — a favorite state police tactic — into obeying their orders.

State Police Lt. Michael Manley, who has helped oversee the acquisition, assured me that the MRAP won’t be used for routine assignments such as running radar on I-91. The vehicle is being added to the arsenal of the state’s Tactical Services Unit, which “responds to calls involving barricaded subjects, suicidal individuals, hostage incidents, high-risk warrants, and active shooters,” according to the state police website.

State police have said that the MRAP could come in handy during bank robberies when the bad guys get trapped inside and start shooting at cops on the outside.

I’ve watched enough Die Hard movies to envision how the scenario might play out. The MRAP rumbles up to the bank’s front door. A trooper safely inside the vehicle uses his best Darth Vader impression to frighten the robbers into surrendering. A shirtless Bruce Willis look-alike jumps out of the MRAP and assures all Vermonters that it is now safe to go back to making maple syrup.

I’m glad I’m not the only who one thinks having the state police acquire a new GI Joe accessory could have potential harmful side effects. Last month, WCAX-TV in Burlington interviewed former Marine Corps Col. Stephen Pomeroy, an associate dean at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. Said Pomeroy: “From a former military guy’s point of view, it looks like an awful lot like the state police (are) escalating their firepower capabilities against a threat I don’t perceive to exist.”

I asked Manley, commander of the tactical team, what he thought about Pomeroy’s critique. “Everyone has their opinion, and they’re entitled to it,” he said. “We’re more concerned about protecting our officers and the public in high-risk situations. That’s our mission.”

The tactical team responds to about 20 calls a year. It’s housing the MRAP in Windsor to “cut down on response time” to calls in southern Vermont, said Manley. The team obtained a similar type of military surplus vehicle in 2011 for the state’s northern tier. That vehicle is housed at the state police Bat Cave — whoops, I mean barracks — in Williston.

Before “hitting the streets” with the MRAP, the Vermont National Guard will provide driving lessons. That’s probably a good idea.

Last September, an Arizona police officer was driving an MRAP on Interstate 10 west of Phoenix at an estimated speed of 75 mph when two tires blew out. The MRAP veered and struck a Ford pickup. No one was injured, but the pickup was a total loss. As you might have guessed, the MRAP suffered only minor damage.

Vermont’s MRAP isn’t quite ready for duty. It’s undergoing a paint job — from sand dune tan to Vermont green — and, because even the state police have limits on how closely they want to mimic the military, the machine-gun turret is being removed.

I hope the vehicle reaches Windsor soon. The Windsor High School alumni parade is held every June. The MRAP would make a terrific parade float.

Other than that, I hope they lose the keys.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.