By Robin Fornoff
One of the first things Clovis Police Chief Steve Sanders did when his department got a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, from the Department of Defense, was to make it look less like a military vehicle.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s a big monstrosity,” said Sanders. “We tried to downplay that in putting some decals on it. We took the turret off it because it was too militaristic looking.”
Sanders considers the MRAP received about a year ago an essential tool. It replaced an aging ambulance used by the Clovis SWAT team. And, Sanders said, the MRAP has already earned its keep in two instances.
Most recently, Clovis police used the all-wheel drive MRAP to rescue several out-of-state families stranded in their nearly submerged cars near First Street and Mabry during the July 2 flooding.
Sanders said the MRAP was also used in December in an almost eight-hour standoff with a barricaded gunman at a house near Fourth and Hinkle streets. The man had fired several shots at police from a bedroom door. Sanders said the MRAP was used by the department’s SWAT team to wait out 30-year-old Eric Gutierrez, who eventually surrendered without police firing a shot.
The MRAP was given to Clovis as part of the defense department’s program that loans local enforcement agencies surplus military gear. A recent Associated Press investigation documented $10.2 million worth of weapons, helicopters and armored trucks were distributed to agencies, including Clovis police, across New Mexico.
The defense department loan program has come under fire with recent developments over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Critics claim police response in military gear and vehicles in trying to control protesters only escalated the violence by militarizing police.
“This has nothing to do with policing,” said David Correia, an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico. “This has nothing to do with making communities safe.”
Sanders said the MRAP is the only military equipment the department has received. It was obtained primarily for the SWAT team, he said.
The ambulance the SWAT team was using needed to be replaced and rather than have the city pay $200,000 for a new SWAT vehicle, the department opted for the MRAP at no charge, according to Sanders.
Its chief advantage, unlike the ambulance, is the MRAP’s heavy armor, said Sanders, who described it as a big, heavy truck that can deflect bullets.
“It doesn’t have machine guns,” said Sanders. “It doesn’t have big water cannons.”
Sanders also said he isn’t concerned that it may give Clovis police a militarized look.
“I think it concerns me if the equipment is being used inappropriately,” Sanders said. “But we have strict guidelines on when it is used and how it is used.”
Sanders said he considers the MRAP an essential tool in protecting officers as well as private citizens.
“It’s kind of like a tornado shelter,” said Sanders. “You plan for the worst and hope for the best. We don’t use it all that much but when there’s a potential use for it, it’s nice to have.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story