After the Santa Cruz City Council approved the $251,293 purchase of an armored SWAT-style truck at a recent meeting, citizens began loudly chanting “shame!” Police, including Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel, cleared the room. Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, says he “was kicked out and threatened with arrest” by police. This was all enough to temporarily shut down the Dec. 9 council meeting, which had been marked by yelled-out comments from community members.
The council voted 6-1 to approve $251,293 in grants from the Department of Homeland Security to SCPD to purchase the armored vehicle—probably a BearCat made by Lenco, Vogel tells GT.
“This vehicle is manufactured specifically for law enforcement use and is not a military surplus vehicle,” Vogel says.
According to Lenco’s website, BearCat stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Truck.
Retired San Jose firefighter Ron Pomerantz, for one, doesn’t like the look of it. “I understand why fire and police might want it. But it looks a little tank-ish,” says Pomerantz, who was at the meeting.
Councilmember Micah Posner expressed similar sentiments during the meeting, saying, “It does look a little scary. It looks like an army vehicle.”
At the council meeting, SCPD’s Bernie Escalante explained that the BearCat would have been useful in the ’89 earthquake, the 2013 killing of two SCPD officers, and during hash-oil fires.
19 citizens spoke in opposition to the BearCat, and none spoke in support. Posner, who cast the dissenting vote, later told GT that all city departments are required to notify City Council when they apply for grants of this size, which the SCPD hadn’t done.
Neither the city manager nor the city attorney returned multiple calls for this story, but Keith Sterling, the city’s public relations representative responded via email, saying only, “The item was brought to council through an agenda item as usual protocol.”
Councilmembers were first notified of the grants on Dec. 2 in a report that refers to an “emergency response and rescue vehicle” without mentioning that it’s an armored personnel carrier.
Posner says his main concern is with the process of this grant application and others for Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs). Last September, city councilmembers learned from GT that SCPD had received its second grant for ALPRs in June.
At the meeting, Deputy Chief Steve Clark told the council that the grants would be lost unless a decision was made that day.
McHenry, yelling from the audience, and Posner both said at the meeting that police should have given people more notice, making the issue public sooner.
Vogel tells GT that the SCPD applied for the armored vehicle grants over a year ago in fall of 2013, and that they were approved in May 2014—seven months before the council was notified. Posner proposed an amendment that the vehicle not be used during nonviolent political protests, but it failed.
An online petition launched to “Give Back The BearCat,” created by local ACLU boardmember Steve Pleich, has 579 signatures so far and will be presented to the City Council at their first meeting of 2015, on Jan. 13.