SOUTH PORTLAND - Here’s the thing about social media – where once an unusual occurrence might elicit a curious comment or two, exchanged over a backyard fence, or between stools at the local diner, now those remarks are broadcast worldwide, often eliciting a cascade of replies.
Recently, the Twitter transom lit up when a large green military vehicle showed up in the parking lot of South Portland City Hall sporting municipal plates.
“Here’s a vehicle you don’t see every day – thank goodness,” tweeted Bob O’Brien, who shared a photo of what looked to be some form of reinforced troop transport vehicle.
“What’s going on over there?!” replied Jessica Esch, in all capital letters.
Just three hours after the running commentary began, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey, who posts on Twitter as @sopomanager, joined the conversation.
“So, I hear the buzz around the city’s MRAP,” he posted. “Got it from the U.S. surplus list for free. Hope we never use it.”
MRAP stands for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected and represents a type of military fighting vehicle designed to survive rolling over an IED, or improvised explosive device, such as the kind used against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last year, with overseas operations winding down, the Department of Homeland Security bought up more than 2,700 of the combat-ready vehicles – many reportedly unused, with zero miles on the odometer – for free distribution to police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide through the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office.
Seven police departments in Maine were approved for the surplus vehicles, each of which dresses out at 19 tons and cost $658,000 to build. Municipal police departments in Brunswick, Sanford and Old Orchard Beach also got MRAPs to add to their fleets, as did sheriff’s departments in Cumberland, Franklin and Oxford Counties.
In December, Defense News reported the U.S. also plans to sell up to 2,000 of the 11,000 MRAPs currently stationed in Afghanistan, rather than incur the $300,000 per vehicle cost of shipping them back home.
South Portland actually took possession of its vehicle in late September, sending two officers to Pennsylvania to drive it to Maine, then sending it to the Maine Military Authority in Limestone to be repainted from desert brown to olive drab.
“This thing is in incredible shape,” said Police Chief Ed Googins on Tuesday, noting that South Portland’s MRAP only has about 7,000 miles on it and was likely used to train soldiers before deployment.
“We are very fortunate to have this asset,” said Googins. “To have local property taxes support an acquisition like this, even for the less expensive civilian versions Portland and the state police have, it just wouldn’t happen.”
The MaxxPro MRAP carries a two-man crew plus four to six passengers, as well as a turret-topping “gunner.” The 21-foot-long hulking vehicle has an 8.7-liter turbocharged diesel engine that gets about one mile to the gallon. How effective it will be on South Portland streets remains to be seen, however, given the 62-foot turning radius detailed on a spec sheet distributed by Illinois-based Navistar Defense, which manufactured the MaxxPro MRAP.
While the MRAP has so far draw no public outcry in South Portland — apart from shock and awe in created on Twitter — some in the state have questioned the “increased militarization” of Maine police departments that MRAP distribution may seem to represent.
“The fact remains that these are machines of war and not peace enforcement,” wrote Bryan Daugherty of Bangor in an October opinion piece for the website Independent Maine.
“MRAP’s are built to withstand ballistic arms fire, mine blasts, IEDs, and other emerging threats confronted in bonafide combat theaters,” wrote Daugherty. “The infusion of military tactics and technology into domestic law enforcement agencies has already caused public relation problems for both the federal government and the police departments willing to take such gifts. Some say the rise of the warrior cop mentality has contributed to a significant portion of officers across the United States overstepping their boundaries and abusing their vested powers.
“Law enforcement isn’t about kicking down doors. It’s about building and maintaining relationships, protecting and serving a community, not a war-zone,” wrote Daugherty.
“What I would say is that when people stop shooting at us, we can be not as concerned for the safety of our people,” said Googins. “But the fact is that there are people out there who want to do harm to us, or to our citizens. We have to be prepared.”
According to Googins, the MRAP will be used by the regional special reaction team, referred to as a SWAT team when founded in 2009 in cooperation with the Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough Police Departments. That team deploys about six times per year, said Googins, for incidents such as when someone has “self-barricaded” in a home, initiating an armed standoff.
“Usually, those are very tense situations,” said Googins, adding that the MRAP has been deployed once so far in South Portland, for serving a “high-risk warrant,” such as when it is feared there may be armed resistance to arrest.
“When we are serving warrants we run it through a threat matrix and when it rises to a certain level we send out a specially trained tactical team rather regular officers,” said Googins.
As O’Brien presumed, the Feb. 10 appearance of the vehicle at City Hall was for a tour by local schoolchildren.
“I haven’t heard anything at all from the public on this at all,” said Mayor Jerry Jalbert, when asked if anyone has questioned the need for a military vehicle like the MRAP in South Portland. “You want to be well equipped to handle most anything, to have the tools you need. I just hope that we never need it.”
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