California News: Oakland Police Commission Slams Police Dept Request for New Armored Vehicle
The citizen-led Oakland Police Commission unanimously rejected a request by the Oakland Police Dept to buy a second bullet-proof BearCat armored vehicle, citing concerns that the force is relying too heavily on militarized weapons and that the money could be better spent on more community-oriented programs.
“For me, it's not the Bearcat itself,” Commissioner Ginale Harris said at the meeting. “It's the people who use it. We are far away from de-escalation tactics. We used the BearCat and it got a really bad rap when Joshua Pawlik was killed. It's the decision-making that makes us very leery.”
“Aggression meets aggression,” Commissioner Anderson said. “We know that law enforcement has been used as a tool of oppression for decades, since our inception as a country. My concern is that becomes the default, that it’s always the tool used for fear of retaliation.”
At its June commission meeting, police argued that the BearCat is the most effective ballistic protection in the department's tool kit and is used “upwards of 150 times a year."
"There was a whole lot of missing data," Police Commissioner Tara Anderson said in an interview. "Really helping us to understand how this tool has been utilized in the past is going to be the best information moving forward as to whether or not we continue to use the existing BearCat and any policy restricting its use."
To compare other departments in the Bay Area, San Jose does not track the use of its BearCat deployments and San Francisco police haven’t responded to a public records request filed in June.
The BearCat Armored Tactical Vehicle is made by the Massachusetts-based Lenco, which touts on its website that it’s among the most “widely trusted SWAT vehicles in North America” and used by more than 700 federal, state and local agencies. The BearCat is designed for tactical emergency medical support, bomb detection, diplomatic protection and fire response.
The debate over militarized equipment is not specific to Oakland. It’s representative of an ongoing national controversy: Whether this type of gear and tools are just a flashy show of force or whether they are actually the best ways to save lives.
In Oakland, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick believes the latter. In June, she wrote the commission explaining why the Tactical Operations Team wants a second BearCat. She said armored vehicles’ capabilities “far exceed” what a patrol car can do in terms of ballistic protection and can be stocked with tools needed to drive into a critical incident.
She said a second BearCat could be used to help block in suspect cars, would reduce the wear-and-tear on the old one which is 12 years old, and could be deployed if a second critical incident breaks out in a different location.
At the June 27 meeting, Capt. Randall Wingate told the commissioners that the “Bearcat is the only vehicle we have that can actually stop bullets.” He added that there is nothing that “even comes close” to more effectively coming in between bullets and the “flesh of officers.”
In addition to being deployed emergencies, Oakland police also say they deploy the BearCat to sporting events and community outings, in part, so they can deter threats and use in rescue situations. And at peaceful events, such as the Boy Scouts or the Polar Plunge, Kirkpatrick said the BearCat is often “well-received” by the public.
However at this year’s Juneteeth Festival, a celebration of the announcement abolishing slavery, police rolled out the BearCat out and got a mixed reaction, with fear and anger from some Black community members.
"This shows how they feel about black events in the black community,” organizer Jhamel Robinson said.
“This triggered my trauma,” a community member wrote on Facebook.
“Why the militarized show of force?” Betty Tyler asked.
The military-gear and training debate plays out in other cities too.
In the Bay Area, progressive activists convinced the Alameda County Board of Supervisors this spring to end the Urban Shield anti-terror training exercises and weapons expo, arguing the program encouraged racial profiling and legitimized the use of assault weapons and armored vehicles by police. But the Alameda County Grand Jury criticized that move saying Urban Shield was a rare training opportunity and canceling the program makes residents “more unsafe.”
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