25 Investigates

25 Investigates: Marshfield police military vehicle involved in deadly crash one of few in the state

MARSHFIELD, Mass. — 25 Investigates is taking a closer look at the military vehicle involved in a deadly crash in Marshfield this week.

The crash killed 79-year-old Michelle Freestone.

The Plymouth District Attorney’s Office said a preliminary investigation found Freestone’s Subaru turned left Tuesday morning in front of a “tan motor vehicle”.

The tan motor vehicle is better known as an MRAP — or a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle.

The U.S. deployed thousands of the light tactical vehicles to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 to 2012 in hopes of reducing deaths from IED attacks. The vehicles gained a reputation for better protecting troops — but also earned notoriety for a high risk of rollover accidents. The military ended up scrapping thousands of the vehicles.

Boston 25 News wanted to know why that police-owned vehicle was on the road in Marshfield — which has touted its ranking as one of the nation’s safest communities — in the first place.

Plymouth County DA Timothy Cruz said a Marshfield police officer was driving the MRAP Tuesday — and they were not heading to a call. That officer was uninjured.

Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 program authorized by Congress, law enforcement agencies all around the country can acquire excess military equipment and supplies for free — minus the cost of shipping and maintenance.

Defense Department records reviewed by 25 Investigates show the MRAP was valued at $705,421 when Marshfield Police acquired it in June 2020.

Marshfield Police Chief Phillip Tavares told Investigative Reporter Ted Daniel that the vehicle cost the department about $4,900 to have it shipped to Marshfield.

Tavares said one of his officers was driving it to the town’s DPW yard to run the engine when the collision occurred.

An analysis by 25 Investigates found that Marshfield has the highest valued acquisition of surplus military equipment of any police department listed in Massachusetts: with $952,401 worth of supplies including utility trucks and rifles.

Marshfield is one of at least five police departments that has acquired mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles — alongside Rehoboth, Oak Bluffs, New Bedford and Haverhill.

Tavares defended the mine-resistant vehicle as needed to help respond to coastal flooding, or a potential active shooter situation.

“Very simply, to rescue people in deep water during blizzards, during when there’s trees down, we need a big vehicle,” he said. “The armored piece is just a bonus in the event, God forbid, we have an active shooter in town.”

Tavares shared a picture of a similar type of vehicle driving through the Brant Rock community in Marshfield during a coastal storm.

Kenneth Lowande is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the military’s surplus equipment program.

“Its military purpose is to protect soldiers from IEDs,” he said of the MRAP.

He says more than 10,000 law enforcement agencies across the country participate in the 1033 program.

“I can tell you in the past that it was extremely easy for the police departments to get these and they weren’t required to go through any kind of training,” he said.

25 Investigates asked the Massachusetts State Police, Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and Massachusetts National Guard about whether local police agencies need any licensing to operate the armored military vehicles, or whether they must follow any safety protocols.

State police spokesperson David Procopio said his agency transferred administration of the 1033 program to the Massachusetts National Guard in November 2019.

“When we did administer it we did not get into oversight or regulatory matters such as making sure local departments had personnel properly trained or licensed to operate it,” Procopio said.

The Massachusetts National Guard and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security didn’t immediately respond to questions Tuesday.

Lowande said that nationwide, there has been little oversight over how police agencies store and use military equipment.

“They provide guidance and they might even provide rules,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to oversee that many agencies.”

Chief Tavares defended his department’s use of the vehicle, and said his first concern is for the officer who drove it and the 79-year-old woman who was killed.

He said only one of his officers is currently trained to operate the MRAP — and that’s the only one who drives it.

“It’s a valuable piece of equipment that’s meant to save lives, not take lives,” he said.

In the interview with 25 Investigates, Tavares said the MRAP is exempt from having to be registered.

And he told Daniel that a CDL license is not required to operate it because it’s an approved emergency vehicle.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation didn’t immediately say Tuesday whether a MRAP needs any kind of license.

DOT spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard said: “The Registry says the determination as to whether the entity needs a CDL license holder or not would depend on the weight of the vehicle and whether they are using it to transport hazardous materials.”

Though the Plymouth County DA’s office was initially investigating the crash, the office has now asked the Suffolk County DA to take over, citing a conflict of interest.

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