By Briana Vannozzi
In the city of Garfield, Police Lt. Michael Marsh just picked up the department’s newest asset — a freshly painted MRAP. It stands for mine-resistant armor protected vehicle, the kind of heavily-armored truck used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is not a military vehicle any more. It’s a police department fleet vehicle and you can see by the name it’s an emergency rescue vehicle and that’s just how we’re treating it,” Marsh said.
Police departments across the state, particularly in the suburbs and shore area, have acquired more than $40 million worth of surplus military equipment — including 13 MRAPs — through a federal program called 1033.
Data obtained by NJ Advance Media shows local departments acquired 2,400 pieces of left over military equipment, including 196 Humvees, more than 600 night sights and 100 pairs of night-vision goggles. By NJTV’s count, 106 municipal police departments and nearly a dozen county and state agencies also acquired surplus equipment.
Aside from shipping and maintenance costs, which ran about $23,000 for this vehicle, the Garfield Police Department — like the others across the state — got their surplus military equipment for free.
“This vehicle is used to supplement out department’s unit. It can be used in flood waters, it can be used if there were some type of attack, terrorist attack or a barricaded subject,” said Marsh.
Police agencies say it gives them access to tactical gear they could otherwise never afford. This truck would cost around half a million dollars brand new.
“The entire western border of the city is the Passaic River so we are impacted by flood waters. During Hurricane Irene, we were impacted within a four-block radius for almost two weeks. The fire department, the police department worked to remove people from the river by boat,” Marsh said.
Garfield PD was one of several departments that responded to the Garden State Plaza active shooter three years ago and to swatting incidents that took place all over the East Coast last year. They plan to outfit the 10-foot high, 14-ton truck with lights, sirens and police scanners.
But the program isn’t without controversy. It came to a head after the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo. following the death of Michael Brown. Police responded to the streets with military-grade riot gear. Sen. Nia Gill ushered legislation in New Jersey to bring more transparency to the program. She’s asking the attorney general to review it to ensure it’s being followed properly.
“The municipality, the governing body, must approve the acquisition of any militarized gear and they must do it by resolution so that the community has an opportunity to voice their position and their opinion on how one, their money will be spent and probably more importantly if they want to have a police department that becomes more militarized,” she said.
But police departments reject that notion, saying the needs for use have increased in recent years, especially after similar military vehicles were used in response to the San Bernardino attacks and Pulse Night Club shooter in Orlando.
“We’re not looking to go out and use this for anything other than specialized operations that would require it,” Marsh said.