Wis. police crediting MRAP after standoff's peaceful end
MRAP acquired from the military has been the subject of controversy for months after the department accepted it
By Nico Savidge
The Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. — Not long after police used an armored vehicle acquired from the military to arrest a man authorities said fired an assault rifle at officers, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval poked his head inside a media briefing about the incident Thursday night.
"How do they like the tank now?" Koval asked.
"The tank" began its life as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle used by the military, but it has since been re-branded by Madison police as an Armored Rescue Vehicle.
It has been the subject of controversy for months after the department accepted it as part of a military surplus program.
But on Thursday night, police said, it played a pivotal role: Getting officers closer to the home of 53-year-old gunman Robert G. Carder Jr., who had fired at police with a rifle from a window.
Authorities have credited the armored vehicle for helping them arrest Carder without using force, and without injury to either Carder or police.
"The protection from the vehicle allowed our folks to do that safely," said Madison police West District Capt. Vic Wahl.
The so-called 1033 Program transfers surplus equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies at no cost. That equipment includes military assault rifles, body armor and vehicles such as the Navistar Defense MaxxPro MRAP, which Madison police received last fall.
The program has come under fire from critics who say it has helped promote a style of policing that blurs the line between the military and civilian law enforcement.
Steve Ward, a former Colorado legislator and Marine Corps colonel who managed the corps' MRAP program in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the multi-ton vehicles have no place in local police departments.
"We're taking gear that was designed for war and putting it among the civilian population to meet a threat that does not exist," Ward said.
Those criticisms intensified earlier this year after police used military equipment to confront demonstrators after an officer-related shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Before he touted it Thursday night, even Koval had an arm's-length relationship with the vehicle. Koval often decries police militarization and became chief after the department received the vehicle. He called it an "albatross" and said he avoids appearing with it in photos.
But Koval also had said before Thursday's standoff that he had no plans to return the vehicle, saying it would be used defensively, to protect officers and the public.
Wahl, who oversees the department's SWAT team, said that he would have preferred to get a different armored vehicle -- a civilian model called a BearCat -- but that its six-figure price tag was a barrier.
David Couper, the former Madison police chief who also raised red flags about police militarization, said armored vehicles have been misused in the past.
The vehicles project a "strong image," but there are situations where they are necessary, Couper said. Departments need to talk with the public about why the vehicles are necessary and when they would be used, he said, and the public must be able to hold police accountable for misuse.
Police had been called to Carder's home at 1510 Frisch Road on the Southwest Side around 6:30 p.m. for a domestic situation.
As officers arrived, police said, Carder began shooting at them from inside the home with an SKS assault rifle, firing rounds that pierced a squad car and nearby home. That forced police to form a wide perimeter, avoiding sight lines from Carder's home, since they had nothing that could stop the rifle rounds, Wahl said.
As the department's armored vehicle arrived on the scene of the standoff, Carder came out of his house, Wahl said, but officers were too far away to ensure he wasn't still armed. The vehicle then approached the house with a handful of SWAT team members inside, police said.
As they got closer the officers could see Carder was unarmed, and police arrested him without using force .
Without the armored vehicle, Wahl said, police would have had to maintain that wide perimeter, wait Carder out if he decided to go back inside his house, or be forced to confront him if he tried to leave.
"The risk potential would have been much, much greater" for everyone involved, he said.
Although such incidents are rare in Madison, Wahl said, police need to be ready for them. That's why the department got the armored vehicle in the first place, he said.
"It's pretty reasonable that we should be prepared for (shootings)," Wahl said. "It shouldn't take someone firing an assault rifle at our cops to say, 'See, we really need this.'"
Copyright 2014 The Wisconsin State Journal