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Sanford Chief Says Armored Vehicle Used Only In 'Very Limited And Specific Set Of Circumstances'

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U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division/Flickr/Creative Commons

Back in the 1990s, Congress authorized the transfer of certain excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the U.S., including many local police departments. Under the federal 1033 program, a number of police departments in Maine have acquired equipment including rifle scopes, computers, night vision goggles and armored vehicles.

The southern Maine town of Sanford has ordered more than $1.5 million worth of gear, including two mine-resistant armored vehicles designed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a time when the militarization of law enforcement agencies is under intense scrutiny, Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly is defending the usefulness of the vehicles.

He told All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty that his department is the primary agency for the Southern Maine Special Response Team, which is called in to deal with high-risk situations, often involving armed and dangerous suspects who have barricaded themselves inside a building.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Connolly: If we’re called to a call where an armed person is controlling an area with a firearm, or maybe armed with a firearm, then the armored vehicles are a way of delivering officers in close to where that person is. Because let’s say he had a rifle and he was in a window — well, the rifle would do nothing to the armored vehicle except put a ding in it. And a lot of times when we respond to these types of calls, just displaying the vehicle itself is enough to resolve the situation. I think what happens is people look out the window and they say, ‘Oh crap, they have an armored vehicle there. Well, might as well just give up,’ and they usually have surrendered, and that’s actually happened a couple of times this year where we’ve helped out other agencies.

And the other thing that the vehicles are used for is in a situation where if you had someone, again, who was using a firearm to commit a crime, and someone was shot or injured and they were within the field of fire so that you couldn’t get in and rescue the people, because the person could shoot you, then we use the armored vehicle to get in and rescue people in a zone that’s being controlled by a firearm.

Flaherty: Here in Maine, how often does it happen when a situation arises where if you did not have these really tough, military-grade vehicles, you would not be able to handle the situation?

Well, that’s a good question. And I guess it depends on the amount of risk you want to take. And whether it’s Maine or New York, you know, these things happen all over the country. And as I said, just a few weeks ago, we helped out one of the police departments that’s part of our cooperative with a person who I believe was supposedly armed or was known to be armed, had spent time in prison, was a high-risk person they had a felony warrant for. And we went down with the team. And we just pulled the vehicle up to the building and got on the PA and told him that he had to come out. So, you know, eventually we would probably have to go in and get him, and he surrendered.

I appreciate that your department makes what sounds like a real effort to make sure that these things are not used inappropriately. But what do you say to people, and there are many people who do say this, that those kinds of vehicles and equipment being in police department possession, that it’s inappropriate for them to be there at all, but that the fact that the police department now has these — I mean, even if they’re not armed, they are military vehicles — that it creates an escalation, a militarization of police departments, which undermines community trust.

Well, I don’t disagree with the feeling and I understand why people think that, but what they’re not thinking about, again, is that one of the duties of the police department is to respond to these extremely high-risk, potentially deadly situations. And if I’m going to send my officers into a situation like that, where I know that they could be shot at, I’d like to give them as much protection as I can possibly give. And by using a vehicle like this in a very limited and specific set of circumstances, everybody should be able to understand why we have one. Now, if this was being driven around the streets every day, which would be highly impractical, but if it was, and you call the police for a trespasser call, and an armored vehicle pulls up in front of your house and a police officer gets out to take the report. Well, that’s highly inappropriate and not allowed. So, community-policing-wise, we’re still the same agency we were before we got the armored vehicles. We try to be very customer oriented and provide the best customer service we can. But in those limited situations where the vehicle would be appropriate, that’s when we use it.

Sanford’s two mine-resistant Ambush Protection Vehicles, each valued at over half a million dollars, were provided for free under the Department of Defense 1033 program. They are among five in the state, according to the federal Defense Logistics Agency, which distributes equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies around the country.

Originally published at 6:04 p.m. June 15, 2020.