You might not realize it while traveling through the small town of Pulaski County, Indiana, population 13,124, but you're actually in a "war zone," at least so says Sheriff Michael Gayer in justifying the acquisition of a MRAP military vehicle.
In a pole barn in Franklin, sharing space with a motorcycle and a boat, sat an imposing military vehicle designed for battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan, not the streets of Johnson County.
It is an MRAP — a bulletproof, 55,000-pound, six-wheeled behemoth with heavy armor, a gunner's turret and the word "SHERIFF" emblazoned on its flank — a vehicle whose acronym stands for "mine resistant ambush protected."
"We don't have a lot of mines in Johnson County," confessed Sheriff Doug Cox, who acquired the vehicle. "My job is to make sure my employees go home safe."
Johnson County is one of eight Indiana law enforcement agencies to acquire MRAPs from military surplus since 2010, according to public records obtained by The Indianapolis Star. The vehicles are among a broad array of 4,400 items — everything from coats to computers to high-powered rifles — acquired by police and sheriff's departments across the state.
Law enforcement officials, especially those from agencies with small budgets, say they're turning to military surplus equipment to take advantage of bargains and protect police officers. The MRAP has an added benefit, said Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer, whose department also acquired one: "It's a lot more intimidating than a Dodge."
Even in Pulaski County, population 13,124, a more military approach to law enforcement is needed these days, Gayer suggested.
"The United States of America has become a war zone," he said. "There's violence in the workplace, there's violence in schools and there's violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that's what I'm going to do."
But, to some, the introduction of equipment designed for war in Fallujah, Iraq, to the streets of U.S. towns and cities raises questions about the militarization of civilian police departments. Will it make police inappropriately aggressive? Does it blur the line between civilian police and the military?
"Americans should ... be concerned unless they want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone," wrote Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., co-author of a USA TODAY article earlier this year. "We recognize that we're not in Kansas anymore, but are MRAPs really needed in small-town America?"