The Sheriff’s Department in Bossier Parish, Louisiana announced a plan in 2010 to train local volunteers to use shotguns, riot gear and a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on what the sheriff called a “war wagon.” The program was part of “Operation Exodus,” a plan to prepare for a potential terrorist attack or local unrest in the area.
Though it may seem unlikely that Bossier Parish would ever have a need for a “war wagon,” this small town’s pursuit of a powerful, weaponized vehicle is just the tip of the (bullet-proof) iceberg, and reflects an increase in military-grade tanks sought after — and acquired — by local law enforcement departments across the country.
Since 9/11, the federal government has doled out around $34 billion in government grants for local police departments to beef up their security capabilities, according to a December report by the Center For Investigative Reporting. The effect of all of this money — often freely given and poorly regulated — is that local police forces have increasingly taken on a military edge.
Particularly, one hot ticket item for local police departments is the Lenco BearCat armored SWAT car, which can hold up to 15 officers, and has bulletproof exteriors and ballistic glass, gunports, roof hatches with rotating turrets and gun mount platforms.
For a state like New York — where the New York City Police Commissioner recently boasted that the police have anti-aircraft capabilities, and whose mayor has said that the NYPD is like his own army — it’s hardly surprising that the federal government gave it around $377 million in 2011. But for states like Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota — who, compared to their populations, were among 15 states or territories that received the most federal money in 2011 — it is rather more puzzling.
Fargo, North Dakota, for example, has purchased $8 million in military-grade equipment thanks to the federal government, the Center for Investigative Reporting reports. Recently authorities have received their own new armored truck, with a price tag of around $256k. But so far, in the absence of a legitimate terrorist threat, the car has been “mostly used for training runs and appearances at the annual Fargo picnic, where it’s been displayed near a children’s bounce house,” Andrew Becker of the CIR writes.
In Carlsbad, CA, a city with a population of around 100,000, plans are underway to replace a 23-year old decommissioned armored bank vehicle with a brand new BearCat by November. The tank will be funded in part by the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant, in cooperation with the California Emergency Management Agency, according to Jodee Sasway, the Public Information Officer for the Carlsbad Police Department. Sasway said the pricetag on the new BearCat is $249k, and it will be used to help the SWAT unit, which averages 14 high risk search warrants a year. The people of Carlsbad, she said, “see it as an asset to maintaining their personal and public safety.”
But in Keene, New Hampshire, residents don’t quite see it that way.
Last week, by a vote of 9-4, the Keene City Council approved a plan to use a $285k federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security to buy a BearCat. Authorities in the city, which has a population of about 23,000 and has had only two murders since 1999, intend to put their own BearCat to use in extreme weather or rescue situations, and to track down potentially dangerous suspects.
But residents, led by members of the libertarian activist group Free Keene (part of the Free State Project), protested the plan — and over 100 of them turned out to a city council meeting on February 9 to express their opposition. Residents carried signs like “Vote for it: You’re fired (your name here),” “Bearcat hates the 1st Amendment … Bearcat > Terror,” and “Please listen to Keene, not Lenco!”
The Keene Sentinel reports that Council member Carl B. Jacobs explained: “I’m concerned that this BearCat has us moving toward a direction of some kind of wall between police and the public. It’s hard for me to stand here and support hypothetical needs when we have real needs that aren’t addressed.”
Jim Massery, the government sales manager for Lenco, which manufactures the BearCats, thinks that opposition to the vehicles means that residents don’t care about police officers. “When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages,” Massery told Radley Balko at HuffPo, “it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator. Our trucks save lives. They save police lives. And I can’t help but think that the people who are trying to stop this just don’t think police officers’ lives are worth saving.”
Authorities in Tyler, Texas might agree that the BearCat is essential to protecting its personnel. Though the tank has, like in Fargo, mostly been used for public relations events like parades, tour groups, and school field trips, Police Chief Gary Swindle told TPM of an incident in 2010 when the BearCat prevented a potential tragedy.
The town of Tyler had gotten the $250,000 BearCat with the help of a grant form the East Texas Council of Governments just ten months before the former Governor’s son went missing. Local authroties tracked his truck to a house in Athens, Texas, which was part of the seven-county radius that Tyler had agreed to help cover with its new BearCat.
The local authorities encountered an individual with a rifle, according to Swindle, and after taking cover they called the Tyler police, who arrived with the BearCat. “They drove up to the house, they pushed the gate open and came close to the house, and began calling on the loudspeaker [for him] to come out,” Swindle said. The man did come out, and began firing at them with an AK-47. The BearCat was hit 47 times, but “they were able to get out of there safely.” Eventually, a sniper took out the shooter, and authorities later found the body of the missing man buried on the property.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that this saved not one, but several, deputy’s lives,” Swindle said. “Obviously, it was a safe haven.” He added that in Tyler, a lot of residents go big game hunting and so own large rifles. “An officer with a pistol is pretty much out-gunned,” he said.
“I think the citizens feel good and feel safe knowing that we have one of these in their community,” Swindle said, noting that in 2005 a courthouse shooting killed two people and injured a third, in addition to several police officers. This history “makes it really an easy sale of the necessity to have one of these,” he said.
But though supporters of BearCats might point to Tyler as evidence that they are necessary, back in Keene council member Terry Clark says that his town is different.
“The bottom line is this is not about public safety,” he said at the meeting last week. “This vehicle is not going to save one life.”