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Hundreds Protest Approval of Police Attack Vehicle Purchase at SC City Council Meeting
On January 13, hundreds of residents attempted to attend the Santa Cruz City Council meeting to oppose the council's December decision which approved a police department request to accept Homeland Security grants totaling more than $250,000 earmarked for the purchase of an armored attack vehicle. When residents first found out in early December about the proposed purchase, police described it as an "emergency response and rescue vehicle" in a report sent to city council members prepared by Deputy Chief of Police Steve Clark and approved by Chief of Police Kevin Vogel. The public later found out that police intended to purchase a Lenco "BearCat." BearCat is an acronym, standing for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. [Top photo: Santa Cruz City Hall. Scroll down for more photos.]
Community members began to rally at City Hall at 2pm in the courtyard adjacent to the council meeting. The BearCat issue had not been not placed on the January 13 agenda by any of the city council members, but Mayor Don Lane announced that extra time would be added to the oral communications period at 5pm (which wound up extending the period by about 45 minutes beyond the standard 30 minutes). Only a fraction of the crowd was able to speak about the BearCat in the time allotted for the community. With a 140 person capacity, the council chambers was overflowing with people, and an attempt was made to set up speakers to broadcast the meeting to people shut out of the meeting. A wide variety of political groups in Santa Cruz organized separately and together to achieve such a large turnout.
John Malkin, who is a journalist and a local specialist on police accountability issues, was the first to address the city council about the BearCat during the oral communications period. He urged the council to, "please rescind the grant approval and organize a public study session about this grant, and the BearCat, and the process by which grants come to city council and come to the Santa Cruz police."
Malkin also asked that the council implement a procedure that used to exist for Santa Cruz that requires police to notify the city council and the public before they apply for grants.
Shortly after the December 9 BearCat approval, a group of activists met with Mayor Lane to discuss the issue, and they were invited to give a short presentation on January 13, which was delivered by Abbi Samuels of Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs. She spoke on behalf of a coalition of eight individuals which included members of the local chapters of the ACLU, WILPF, People's Democratic Club, Code Pink, and Food Not Bombs, as well as a first responder and a civil rights activist.
The purpose of the presentation, Samuels said, was to give reasons why the BearCat order should be rescinded, as well as to introduce a proposal to change the process by which the City of Santa Cruz acquires grants.
One reason to rescind the BearCat order is "perception," she said. "What does it look like in our streets to have military vehicles?"
Deploying a military-style assault vehicle for use on the streets of Santa Cruz would impact the way people react to the police, Samuels said. It would be like treating citizens as "combatant enemies."
"Policing is becoming dictated by the Department of Homeland Security's notion of combating terrorism," Samuels said.
The $250,000 for the BearCat would come from two grants: one directly provided by the Department of Homeland Security, and another from monies made available by the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), which according to the FEMA website, "provides funding support for target hardening and other physical security enhancements and activities to nonprofit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack."
Samuels said that according to their research conducted through Public Records Act Requests, records state the grants are to be used to acquire an anti-terrorism vehicle, as opposed to a rescue vehicle. The application for the grant submitted by police indicated the BearCat would be used as a SWAT team vehicle, she said, and activists don't believe that SWAT team activity is part of a "rescue team" vision of use for the vehicle.
Samuels said their research indicates that across the United States, BearCats are not typically used for rescue purposes. The most common uses are for drug busts, serving arrest warrants, and at peaceful protests. She said the ACLU has studied the use of vehicles like the BearCat and have found that their use in law enforcement tactics significantly increases the chance of property damage and bodily harm.
A persistent question asked by those opposed to the purchase of the BearCat is why didn't the police agree to an amendment to the ordinance that would guarantee the vehicle would not be used against peaceful protesters?
This point was especially highlighted during a speech from a member of Veterans for Peace that was given during the rally in the City Hall courtyard and again during the oral communications period.
"As veterans we once served for the state as agents of violence," he said.
"We were trained and authorized to kill on orders. That is why it is shocking, and I really mean that, shocking, to see equipment we used in combat now being used in our nation's streets against our fellow citizens, those of you who saw pictures of people in Ferguson."
"Armored personnel carriers, camouflaged uniforms, and assault rifles were never intended for local policing. In fact their use may often result in escalating, not solving, situations. When we arm and equip officers like soldiers going into battle, they will act like soldiers. It will not help to solve social problems using the equipment, techniques, and philosophy of war."
He said the militarization of police forces is happening all across the United States and wherever the organization has chapters.
During her presentation, Abbi Samuels asked why a similar vehicle that is not used for military purposes wasn't considered for purchase. She suggested the selection of a bullet proof bank vehicle that does not have military-style hookups for machine gun use, like the BearCat does.
Samuels noted that the City of Berkeley returned a similar vehicle in response to the public's opposition to it. Attack vehicle acquisitions have also been reversed or blocked locally in San Jose and San Leandro.
One individual opposing the BearCat speculated that Santa Cruz was eligible for this grant because defense contractor Lockheed Martin has a location close to the city at the end of Empire Grade Road.
According to police, an additional justification for the purchase is that the beach areas are designated as a protected Federal Buffer Zone with an "increased potential for public safety threats."
"The City of Santa Cruz not only serves as the county seat, but is also significantly impacted by additional population influxes created by major tourism destinations and a University of California campus. These factors are consistent with other full-service California cities that have obtained and successfully deployed regional rescue vehicles under this program," the police stated. Police say some examples of comparable cities that have deployed similar vehicles include Santa Barbara, Huntington Beach, Pasadena, Pomona, Redondo Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Visalia.
Samuels discussed the timeline for the grant process, which was based on the limited information activists were able to obtain from Public Records Act requests. She said that in the Autumn of 2013 the grant was first applied for, and that all grants are processed by Deputy Chief Clark. In May of 2014, the grant was approved by the Homeland Security Department via telephone. There is no paper trail for when the Santa Cruz Police Department notified City Manager Martin Bernal of the grant approval. That date had to be sometime before December 2, when city staff first notified council members about the proposal. The item was then placed on the consent agenda for the December 9 city council meeting. Agenda items not seen as "controversial" are all voted on as a group in one motion by council members as part of the consent agenda.
During the December 9 meeting, police said if the council did not approve the BearCat purchase at that session there would be a loss of funds. A specific deadline date for the expiration of the grants was never given. Samuels said there are no city or police documents that confirm there would be a loss of funds if the grant was not approved at the December 9 city council meeting.
Samuels said the coalition of activists she met with are now proposing that grants over a certain dollar amount must go to the city council, be placed on the regular agenda, and be scheduled in the evening.
Council members didn't make any comments about the BearCat purchase at the January 13 meeting, and the issue was not placed on the agenda for the next council meeting.
Even though there were countless members of the public who were not allowed to address the city council about the BearCat issue, Mayor Lane invited Police Chief Vogel to speak after the public comment period was shut down.
Vogel outlined a set of policy guidelines for use of the BearCat that the police department threw together following the public outcry at the December 9 council meeting. Details given about the policy included what the chain of command would be within the SCPD regarding who is authorized to operate the vehicle, and what situations the vehicle may be used. Vogel said the new BearCat policy was vetted through Mayor Lane, and it was announced that the vehicle could be used to serve warrants.
Near the end of Vogel's presentation, community members began shouting out a deluge of questions for him. One woman asked loudly why it took seven months for the police department to draft the policy.
There were many other "outbursts" from the public at the January 13 meeting. There was a large police presence inside of council chambers due to the fact that the December 9 council meeting was briefly shut down when community members chanted "shame" repeatedly following the council's vote to approve the BearCat purchase.
Locally, the "Never Forget" design refers to when two Santa Cruz Police Officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2013.
A Lenco BearCat used by the Nashville SWAT team (photo from Wikipedia).