Snoqualmie raised eyebrows across the U.S. in 2014 after it requested an armored vehicle for its police department.
Media outlets were confused as to why the city, with a population of about 12,694 at the time, would request a vehicle designed to withstand a mine blast in a warzone.
As of today, the military truck has been deployed a handful of times as part of a SWAT team, and in rescue operations. However, it sits largely unused, in the Snoqualmie Police Department’s vehicle lot.
Snoqualmie’s Mayor Matt Larson, who said he views it as a necessary evil, wants to keep it.
“It’s not what we want to convey of what our police department is, or what it represents, but it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox,” he said.
Snoqualmie requested the BAE Caiman tactical vehicle as part of the federal 1033 program administered by the Law Enforcement Support Office. It was requested by former police chief Steven McCulley, who has since taken a job as police chief in Atherton, Calif.
The federal program gave local law enforcement decommissioned military gear beginning in 1997. It has roots in 1988 legislation that allowed the Department of Defense to temporarily transfer excess military gear to law enforcement to wage the “War on Drugs.” The 1997 law allows local departments to keep gear indefinitely. Afterwards, departments must either return the equipment or send it to another law enforcement agency.
The program has greatly expanded following the Iraq War. Since its inception, the program has given more than $7.4 billion in gear to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., according to the Law Enforcement Support Office.
The discussion of demilitarizing the police has again made headlines nationwide after weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Police agencies across the country responded to protests and unrest by filling city blocks with tear gas and rubber bullets. Defunding the police has become the basis of a growing movement across the country, as communities ask elected officials to direct more money toward social services and communities of color that have suffered from the effects of racism, and away from militarizing police.
The Law Enforcement Support Office keeps a list of all military gear delivered to police departments across the country. In addition to the mine-resistant vehicle, Snoqualmie Police Department also has six 7.62 mm rifles, three unmanned robots that can be used for bomb disposal, and various other gear like headset microphones and radio sets.
Snoqualmie is the only agency in King County that currently has an armored vehicle provided through the federal program. Although it is shared between several cities that make up the regional Coalition of Small Police Agencies, which operates its own SWAT team.
The coalition is comprised of 14 King County cities including Snoqualmie, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Normandy Park, Hunts Point, Yarrow Point and Black Diamond.
The Caiman’s cost, training and use is spread between all the cities in the coalition, said Capt. Nick Almquist, Snoqualmie Police Department’s spokesperson. The vehicle is housed in Snoqualmie because they could store it more easily, he said. It’s primarily used to deploy SWAT officers into dangerous areas.
Almquist said the vehicle has only been used about five times for SWAT calls. But the Caiman is regularly featured as a main staple of coalition city parades during the holidays. It’s also deployed during natural disasters to reach places that regular police vehicles can’t access.
“We were able to drive the rig out and pick people up from their porches,” during one flood, Almquist said.
The six-wheel vehicle is equipped with a winch on the front, ladders, tools, police lights, medical equipment and a radio. Almquist said the Caiman armored vehicle costs little to maintain, mostly consisting of oil changes and tire repairs.
It deploys from the Snoqualmie police department, after a threat assessment has been completed by officers. It is used by the coalition’s SWAT team, which is comprised of officers from the 14 cities’ police departments.
“It’s definitely a valuable asset to handling a situation of crisis,” Almquist said of both the SWAT team and the vehicle.
Some question whether small cities need their own SWAT teams. The King County Sheriff’s Office also has a SWAT team and has significant amounts of equipment from the federal government.
Alison Holcomb, political director for the ACLU of Washington, said acquiring heavily armored vehicles has been justified by local officials through an increased emphasis on enforcement stemming from the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs.”
Officers having military gear — whether it be armored vehicles or AR-15 rifles — can emphasize an armed response to a crisis instead of serving as community partners, she said. Even simply deploying the equipment can change the relationship between communities and police.
“Everything about equipment, uniforms, the training they receive that comes from a military source is by definition designed to prepare a soldier that’s going into a combat zone, rather than a peace officer who’s patrolling a neighborhood,” Holcomb said.
She said visual cues like armored vehicles can be viewed as an escalation of force.
“If you drive up in an armored car at any scene, any situation, you are automatically conveying that we think that there is a serious threat of significant damage to life and limb and that we need to have very powerful weapons at the ready, which is a display of force,” Holcomb said.
Mayor Larson said militarization of police is an issue he’s been concerned with throughout his tenure. But he pointed to the North Hollywood bank robbery as an example of when police may need heavy gear. The 1997 robbery saw two heavily armed men shoot it out with police. Officers were only able to stop the robbers after going to a civilian gun store to buy AR-15s.
Larson said he would like to see more restrictive gun laws before agreeing to get rid of the armored vehicle.
“This notion that any sort of regulation and background checks, or the banning of military assault rifles is somehow taking our guns away, is a salacious argument,” he said.
Larson said he hasn’t heard concern from the community in Snoqualmie about the vehicle. It wasn’t deployed at a recent protest in North Bend, a city that Snoqualmie police also serves.
Larson said he wants to keep the vehicle largely out of sight. The image of armed police officers hanging off the side of an armored vehicle isn’t one he wants associated with Snoqualmie police.
However, Holcomb said small cities should ask their elected representatives why the federal government is providing surplus military equipment instead of more funding for other services.
“What small towns and big cities are looking for right now are solutions for the opioid epidemic, solutions for the housing crisis, solutions for our lack of mental health care services,” Holcomb said. “We don’t need you to spend any more money on armored vehicles and AR-15s and other military equipment for our police. We need you to be investing in healthy communities.”