The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association (VSA) sent a letter to Governor Ralph Northam on Monday asking him to amend two bills to allow law enforcement agencies to acquire armored military vehicles, which they argue are vital in extreme weather rescues as well as the protection of officers and citizens from gunfire.
The bills specifically restrict law enforcement agencies from acquiring various military equipment, including mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, through a federal surplus program called 1033 run by the Department of Defense.
“The language in both bills limits the use of MRAPS, and when we went through the [legislative] process we thought that MRAPS are used for SWAT only, but I’m finding out that sheriffs across the state actually use these vehicles for rescue because they can drive through deep water,” Jones told The Virginia Star. “The language that we have submitted just clarifies that they can be used for something other than aggression or protection.”
Overall, the VSA does not have any other issues or concerns with the two bills. They just want the acquisition of weaponized military vehicles to be prohibited instead of armored ones, according to Jones.
The letter also included brief explanations from nine sheriffs in different localities on how they specifically have or would use an MRAP.
Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor said they have had an MRAP for eight to ten years and have used it for transporting citizens away from flooded areas and as a platform to negotiate a safe surrender of a suspect with a gun after a deputy had been shot.
“We have been able to get those vehicles for almost no cost to the locality and the sheriffs, so we think it makes sense to allow those localities to continue to use the vehicles once they have them for the purpose of doing rescues,” Jones said. “If a sheriff had to get rid of the vehicle and go buy one, it would be a waste of taxpayer money.”
Purchasing an MRAP from the military without using the 1033 program, would cost around $1 million, and the price of the same vehicle from a civilian seller could be much higher.
When SB 5030 was advancing through the Senate, several Republican members opposed the restrictive provision for the same reasons outlined by Jones.
“There is just no doubt in my mind that these vehicles perform an enormous function for a lot of jurisdictions where the terrain dictates these types of vehicles to give our first responders the ability to go on some of these unpaved roads to assist folks that need help,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), a former law enforcement officer. “More importantly, I think these vehicles perform a function with regard to officer safety.
“To me, if you don’t allow [those vehicles] then you’re putting people’s lives at risk and at some point those first responders are just going to throw up the white flag and say we quit.”
Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford), who, like Reeves, supports the governor changing the bills said that it would be a terrible move to knowingly increase the risk for law enforcement officers by taking away an asset that can be used for protection.
The Star reached out to the governor’s office to get comment on the VSA’s letter, but did not hear back before press time.
With a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Northam only has a short window to decide whether or not to make those changes.
As of Monday night, it is not clear what the governor will do.
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