When I read last week that the Portland Police Department bought a $270,000 military-style armored vehicle, I did not feel safer. And the more I read and thought about the whole thing, the less safe I felt.
I started getting worried halfway through the first paragraph of the press release announcing the purchase where it says the new vehicle, called a BearCat, is needed because the armored personnel carrier the department has been using — a 30-year-old military surplus truck known as the Peacekeeper — “does not provide adequate protection against weapons and ammunition now available to the public.”
In other words, there could be criminals in Portland packing ammo capable of penetrating battle armor. That was news to me. Very bad news.
Is this a real threat here in Portland (where violent crime fell 22 percent last year)? Is there really a threat of perps that dangerous anywhere else in Maine, which one study called the least violent state in the nation?
The press release was unconvincing. It cited four incidents to justify buying the quarter-million-dollar mini-tank. Two occurred well over a decade ago on the other side of the country: the 1999 Columbine massacre and the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.
The other two happened recently in Portland but were far less dramatic. One involved an angry dude on Cedar Street armed with a pellet gun. The other, a pre-Christmas standoff near St. John Street, may have involved a handgun, but the cops couldn’t find a weapon in the suspect’s messy apartment after they took him into custody for psychiatric evaluation. No criminal charges resulted from that incident.
Buying the BearCat struck me as an egregious example of a troubling national trend: the militarization of the police. The federal government has been giving state and local cops military weaponry and equipment for decades. Last century, it was to help fight the War on Drugs. This century, it’s to help wage the War on Terror.
The Portland Police Department’s BearCat was fully funded by a port security grant courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It can detect explosives as well as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
There’s legitimate concern that all this military equipment and training changes the attitudes and practices of cops on the beat, turning Officer Friendly into Sgt. Slaughter. Such fears were stoked repeatedly last year by scenes of cops confronting Occupy protesters using military tactics and gear.
City officials refer to the BearCat as a “rescue vehicle” and note that it can be used to evacuate citizens from dangerous situations and keep officers safe on the scene.
But its manufacturer, Massachusetts-based Lenco Industries, clearly designed this thing to play offense, not just defense. Wikipedia informs us that BearCat is shorthand for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. It’s got multiple side gun ports and a turret. Lenco makes two similar Bearcat models outfitted with medical equipment, but that’s not the type of attack truck we have.
Armed standoffs are generally caused by desperate people — people desperate for money, drugs or mental health care. Rather than spend money to stimulate the economy and provide drug and mental health treatment to those too poor to afford it, the government cuts services and gives us expensive war machines to keep the crazies at bay.
At this point in my writing I’d progressed from fear to outrage and was on the verge of freaking out. So I did the responsible thing: I called the cops.
In a phone interview, Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck did a good job talking me down, in part by stressing that that’s how his force handles armed confrontations. Communication “is our No. 1 option,” Sauschuck said.
Heavy-handed tactics are employed only when communication has utterly failed or when the threat to public safety increases. Even then, less lethal options are preferred. The Cedar and St. John Street standoffs ended when police used tear gas to flush the suspects out; no shots were fired.
The department’s Special Reaction Team is mobilized less than half a dozen times in a typical year, and Sauschuck said the BearCat’s use will be strictly limited to high-risk situations. The chief recognizes concerns about the militarization of police and vows that community policing, not combat readiness, will continue to be his department’s modus operandi.
Though I certainly support giving officers the protection they need in risky situations, I remain concerned that rolling this olive-drab attack truck into the scene will ultimately make those situations more tense and dangerous for all involved.
“It has not been our experience that the introduction of a rescue vehicle like this would actually escalate the scenario,” Sauschuck told me.
Let’s hope we don’t find out if he’s right anytime soon.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.