Armored police truck has high-profile support, opposition
Support for an armored vehicle in the city of Santa Cruz goes deeper than the police department or even the City Council majority, public records show.
GT has learned that U.S. Congressmember Sam Farr (D-Carmel) wrote a letter of support for an armored vehicle in September 2013—15 months before the City Council first heard about the grant. Santa Cruz, Farr argued, has enough terrorist targets that it deserves its own armored truck for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive incidents—or a CBRNE Vehicle, as it’s sometimes called.
“Santa Cruz is especially vulnerable to CBRNE incidents, including potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters,” Farr wrote. The letter lists the Boardwalk, UCSC and Lockheed Martin as “vulnerable critical infrastructure” that an armored truck could help protect. Farr could not be reached for comment.
But opponents of the BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Rescue Counter Attack Truck) are increasingly vocal, as well. On Jan. 13, the City Council chambers were so packed for a meeting—even though the topic wasn’t on the agenda—that the fire department asked some of the crowd to move outside. About 300 citizens, many of them holding signs opposing police use of military-style equipment, called upon city officials to “give back the BearCat” that the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) is in the process of purchasing with a $251,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The council had approved the purchase at the previous meeting, on a 6-1 vote.
About 30 citizens spoke in opposition, with many asking council to rescind the grant and organize a public study session on police accountability. One person spoke in support.
Mayor Don Lane allowed 70 minutes for oral communications, which ended with about 10 citizens remaining in line. Then SCPD Chief Kevin Vogel read preliminary protocols for use of the BearCat, which police say will be built within six months.
The protest continued at the next City Council meeting on Jan. 27, when the chambers were again filled with citizens arguing that there are already multiple armored police trucks in the area.
The debate spilled over onto the cultural landscape last week, referenced onstage at local events by hip hop artist Boots Riley (of the Coup), Patti Smith (see page 12), and radical scholar Angela Davis.
At Davis’ MLK Convocation speech, she warned the capacity crowd at the Civic that “the so-called war on terror has led to the militarization of local police all over the country.”
Davis said that Berkeley, Albany and UC Berkeley police had collaborated to purchase their own BearCat vehicle in 2012. When she added that Berkeley community members successfully pressured police to rescind its BearCat purchase, the audience clapped in approval.
When the Santa Cruz grant was initially discussed and then accepted last December, Lt. Bernie Escalante of the SCPD told the council that the department sometimes borrows an armored vehicle from Santa Clara, but added, “We’re looking at a three-to-four-hour response time.”
Escalante had told GT that SCPD “borrowed an armored vehicle approximately 10 times over the last three to four years,” including when two officers were killed on Branciforte Avenue in 2013, although the vehicle arrived late.
But Santa Clara isn’t the closest department with an armored vehicle. The city of Del Rey Oaks, 41 miles south of Santa Cruz, has a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, and the Scotts Valley Police Department (SVPD) owns a S.W.A.T. truck. SVPD Chief John Weiss tells GT they purchased a used armored truck for $10 from Brinks, through a program that sells vehicles to police departments for a nominal fee. They had it painted black for free at the Rountree jail facility in Watsonville.
He said that the S.W.A.T. truck is most often used to raise money for local schools by selling rides to school and birthday parties for children.
Weiss said SVPD sent its vehicle when the two officers were shot in 2013, and estimated that response time was 20 to 30 minutes.
Escalante says he wasn’t aware that Scotts Valley had a SWAT truck that was deployed to Santa Cruz in 2013.
In addition, the Santa Cruz County sheriff has one bulletproof S.W.A.T. truck, according to media spokesperson Kelly Kent, although he added that their truck doesn’t withstand bullets from assault rifles. That truck was also deployed after the officer shooting in 2013.
At the December meeting, members of SCPD told councilmembers that unless the grant was accepted that day the funds would be lost, because a portion of the grant had to be spent by the end of 2014 to meet a March deadline of having the vehicle built and shipped here. Escalante says that SCPD was notified of a March 31, 2015, deadline via email from the Office of Emergency Services (OES). The email has not been made public.
While the SCPD has called the BearCat an “emergency rescue vehicle,” its manufacturer, Lenco, calls it a SWAT truck, and Homeland Security refers to such armored trucks as “CBRNE” vehicles. Meanwhile, a recent ACLU report indicates that nearly 80 percent of the time, police use APCs to “serve search warrants, usually in drug cases.”
Escalante could not be reached for follow-up about the purpose or designation of SCPD’s impending truck.
Councilmember Micah Posner tells GT he’s not so concerned about the BearCat itself, but does want to improve transparency with the police department. He plans to propose a process that requires police to notify council about possible police grants “early on in the application process.”
A public forum on ‘The Militarization of Police’ has been organized by the local chapter of the ACLU for Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Louden Nelson Community Center. PHOTO: Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel says his department is in the process of purchasing a BearCat vehicle with its recently accepted grant for an armored truck.