City Council clarifies use for armored police truck
A rally outside Santa Cruz City Hall last week featured City Councilmember Micah Posner, the Raging Grannies, who brought their singing satire, and comedian Richard Stockton. They gathered shortly before the March 24 City Council meeting to ask councilmembers to give back the controversial BearCat armored vehicle purchased in January for the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD). “We are Santa Cruzans. We work for peace and partner with our police!” Stockton said.
Or as, the Raging Grannies put it: “We don’t give a duck for a ballistic, engineered truck.”
Later that night, a crowd of over 100 jostled for limited seating in the City Council chambers. On the agenda was a discussion of the controversial BearCat, in light of community concerns and demands from activists that the council return the truck. The truck, whose name stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, is not a “military-surplus vehicle” leftover from the Iraq war, but was instead built for domestic use.
The council ultimately voted 6-1 to support a use policy for the truck, which emphasizes that the BearCat will not be used for routine patrols, parades, first-amendment-protected demonstrations, or public displays other than structured educational programs.
Wives of local police officers stood in line, alongside activists, to grab seats in the council chambers, carrying signs of opposition, like “Give Back the BearCat.” An overflow crowd of about 200 watched from the patio outside, where audio was not available until 9 p.m., and from the Civic Center across the street, where a video feed projected the proceedings, which ran from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Almost 70 citizens made comments following presentations from the SCPD, the city manager’s office, firefighters, the Watsonville police chief and organizations including the Police Officers Association, SCRAM!, Take Back Santa Cruz, Food Not Bombs, and a group representing family members of SCPD officers.
The emotional evening highlighted co-existing needs for safety, freedom and transparency. Wives of SCPD officers and others spoke passionately about protecting loved ones. “I don’t understand their point of view. It’s not a military vehicle,” Johanna Schonfield tells GT of activists’ concerns. Schonfield’s older sister, Laurel, is an SCPD detective. “This is purely about safety,” adds Schonfield, also a Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney.
Former Santa Cruz mayors and activists raised concerns about the impact that an armored personnel carrier would have on police-community relations.
Love a Man in Uniform
Members of SCRAM!, Santa Cruz Resistance Against Militarization, played a promotional video for the Lenco BearCat. Set to the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck,” the video opens with the caption, “The Way SWAT Does Business” and shows police shooting semi-automatic rifles from the BearCat and crashing a battering ram through a door to inject tear gas into the building. Mayor Don Lane commented that the video appeared “very aggressive.”
“I know a military vehicle when I see one,” said Santa Cruz resident Aryeh Barson during public comment. Barson moved to Santa Cruz in 2000 after living in Israel for 14 years, and serving three years in the Israel Defense Forces. He asked the Council to give back the vehicle, saying it would undoubtedly raise tensions locally, as he’d seen in the Middle East.
One feature on the BearCat that has raised concerns is what is commonly referred to as a “battering ram.”
The hydraulic ram attaches to the front of the BearCat and has been described by SCPD Lt. Bernie Escalante as a “defensive” tool that “can be used for reasons besides breaching entry, like delivering a phone or food in a hostage situation.” Escalante also said the 11 gun ports could be used for shooting “non-lethal” weapons like tasers.
During his presentation, Escalante said that SCPD’s BearCat won’t have a grenade launcher. But GT recently discovered that the SCPD has purchased a variety of grenades—including distraction device, rubber pellet and “military type” grenades—according to documents received through a public records request. Escalante did not comment on the grenades, citing protection of police tactics.
The ACLU explored police technology like armored personnel carriers (APCs) in a 2014 report called “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It argued, “The use of violent tactics and equipment (like APCs) was shown to increase the risk of bodily harm and property damage.”
President of the Police Officers Association Joe Hernandez told the council that, in a way, it may be too late to slow militarization. “When I get dressed in the morning, I put on boots that are considered combat boots. I wear a bulletproof vest,” he says. “I carry a sidearm when I go work the streets. My uniform has military creases. When we talk about militarization of the police, to some degree we’re there.”
The spirited Tuesday night meeting intensified when it was announced that a San Jose police officer had just been killed and that police were mobilizing a BearCat to apprehend the shooter. One speaker ventured, “a BearCat could’ve saved the life of the officer in San Jose.” Another countered that armored vehicles usually arrive after such shootings have already occurred.
Around midnight, Councilmember Posner made a motion to suspend the purchase of the BearCat. Posner stood alone as his motion failed in a 6-1 vote.
The Council then voted 6-1 to support the proposed use policy for the armored truck detailing that the truck not be used in certain situations, like nonviolent protests.
The lone vote of dissent against the vehicle’s use policy came from BearCat supporter Councilmember Pamela Comstock, who said the City Council was “second-guessing the police department” and “setting precedent by weighing in on strategy and tactics for the police.” Chief Kevin Vogel agreed that he’d never seen City Council help create operational policies for the police in his four years as department head.
Comstock is the only councilmember who has confirmed knowledge of the BearCat grant before December of 2014. “I was told about the BearCat and had an opportunity to ask questions,” she tells GT. “It is a standard practice for city staff to seek Council input prior to bringing an agenda item forward.”
But Councilmember Posner affirmed the need for police oversight. “Now that we’ve decided to acquire a BearCat, I think it is responsible for the Council to establish use over it,” he said. “We’re committed to having leadership over the scope of operations of the police. For me, that’s critical for a functional democracy.”
Discussion of a new procedure for city grants, in light of the controversy surrounding the SCPD’s application process, was tabled, as recommended by Assistant City Manager Tina Shull.
“It still needs some work,” Shull said.
PHOTO: Richard Stockton (left) and the Raging Grannies were both at a rally on March 24, demanding that Santa Cruz give back its armored personnel carrier. JOHN MALKIN