New Hampshire State Representative J.R. Hoell witnessed citizens’ outrage at one local police department’s refusal to listen when Concord residents petitioned against the department’s decision to buy a Lenco BearCat armored personnel carrier with $258,000 of Homeland Security grant money.
Concerned that their police force, like many others throughout the country, was coming to resemble a military outfit more than a civilian-funded, protect-and-serve crime-prevention and response unit, 1,500 Concord residents signed a petition last year opposing the department’s purchase of such a vehicle.
Here’s how Lenco describes the vehicle:
The BearCat, our best selling truck, may be used as a S.W.A.T. or Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle and is often used in hostile Urban Environments or as a Patrol/Reaction Vehicle on a Military Base. The BearCat, with its standard NIJ IV armor and 4WD system, can carry up to 10 people through varying terrain. The BearCat has been embraced by several DoD and DoE Security Forces and, because of its affordability, low maintenance expenses, ease of use and superior armor level, is increasingly the replacement vehicle of choice for up-armored Humvees. It may also be equipped with our optional Mechanical Rotating Turret with Cupola (Tub) and Weapon Ready Mounting System, suitable for the M60, 240B and Mark 19 weapons system.
At an August city council meeting, hundreds of people showed up to oppose the pending purchase; about 50 of them got to speak at a public hearing that night to voice their concern over the police-on-steroids message that buying such a vehicle would send.
The department committed to the BearCat anyway, on the strength of an 11-4 council vote a month after the hearing.
Police Chief John Duval tried to paint opposition to the purchase in extremist colors, arguing that libertarian radicals from the Sovereign Citizens, Free State Project and Occupy New Hampshire pose “active and present challenges” to the Concord police department.
But the controversial move didn’t just upset a few alleged nut cases; it became the central bickering point for an active city council election later in the fall, when five of the seven contested council seats were challenged by a total of eight newcomers who framed the race as a referendum on what kind of police department the city should maintain. Here’s a local resident’s blog post about how that turned out. (Hint: Three of the incumbents who voted in favor of the purchase aren’t on the council anymore.)
After watching Concord residents’ concerns go unheeded, Hoell, a Republican with a libertarian streak, introduced a bill in the current legislative session that aims to end municipal acquisitions of military equipment — not only via Federal grants, but also through the Department of Defense Excess program, which essentially gives police departments cast-off military equipment for free.
Under Hoell’s bill, the Police Equipment and Community Engagement (PEACE) Act, no State or municipal agency would be permitted to buy or acquire any “military style equipment” for a police force unless the purchase is first approved by affected citizens at a public meeting.
“I introduced the bill because the citizens of Concord were overwhelmingly opposed to their police department having MRAP vehicles and it was ordered anyway,” Hoell told Dave Lindorff of investigative nonprofit WhoWhatWhy:
I don’t see any reason for police to have armored vehicles, or even fully automatic weapons.
…The role of the state is to make sure the citizens have the best law enforcement and not one that’s overly militarized. Whatever happened to police wearing blue? Now they are dressed in black, head to toe, and when they go to serve warrants at people’s homes, they break the door down, and they wear masks.
…I don’t know, maybe it’s a military thing. But it’s not community policing.”
The bill is currently before a Legislative committee. Here’s hoping this idea spreads beyond the Granite State.