Union Leader: “BearCat brouhaha revs up Keene”

Meghan Pierce of The Union Leader covers the growing resistance to the militarization of Keene’s streets with the article in today’s paper:

KEENE — Thanks, but no tanks. That’s what some residents are saying in opposition to a city plan to purchase an armored vehicle for emergency response.

An outcry resulted after the City Council accepted a $285,933 Homeland Security grant in December — without a public hearing — to buy a LENCO BearCat Special Missions armored vehicle. Now the BearCat’s fate awaits the City Council’s final decision, expected at its March 1,7 p.m., meeting at Keene City Hall.

The city’s reconsideration of the grant got national media attention, including an article in the Huffington Post, sparking thousands of comments online about the role of the federal government.

Mike Clark, a 27-year-old handyman currently facing a criminal mischief charge in Keene — and the son of the sole Keene council member to vote against accepting the Homeland Security money — told the Huffington Post he has had encounters with Keene police and was “roughed up” both times.

“The police are already pretty brutal,” Clark said. “The last thing they need is this big piece of military equipment to make them think they’re soldiers.”

“It’s an armored vehicle, not an armed vehicle and there’s a big difference,” Keene Police Capt. Brian Costa said in describing the BearCat.

The vehicle would look pretty much like armored vehicles used by banks, he said.

“It’s a Brink’s truck. We see these all the times. All this vehicle is, it affords the first responders … an added protection of safety,” Costa said.

Costa said the BearCat would have been useful during the 2005 floods.

“We lost one cruiser directly in the flood trying to evacuate people from out of their homes,” he said. “We certainly would have used this vehicle in those floods.”

The BearCat would not be used to disperse a peaceful assembly, he said.

The BearCat would have four-wheel drive, a thermal-imaging camera, combustible gas detectors and a radiation detector, according to Costa.

‘Poster child of waste’

Councilor Terry Clark said he plans to make a motion to rescind the acceptance of the grant at the March 1 meeting.

“I can only speak for myself, but I sense that I am gaining support,” Clark said.

Clark said his major concern was best expressed by the LENCO representative, who told the council that Homeland Security grants allow the company to tap into the $34 billion domestic terrorism budget.

“This seems to be a poster child of waste,” Clark said. “This is an agreement between the government and arms dealers, essentially.”

A public hearing on the grant was held Feb. 9 after residents submitted a 144-signature petition asking for the hearing.

Roberta Mastrogiovanni, owner of Corner News Store on Main Street, told council members at the hearing that she opposed the vehicle’s purchase.

“I spoke to hundreds of people,” she said. “Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree that Keene really does not need a vehicle of this caliber. Many felt that rather than militarize our police department, we should try to promote more human interaction with our officers.”

Edward Gross, who said he spent 27 years on the city police force, defended the BearCat’s purchase.

“We can argue the cost of the vehicle … If you want to consider costs, consider a seriously injured officer or the death of an officer,” he said.

But the vast majority of those at the hearing opposed the BearCat’s purchase.

State Rep. Steve Lindsay said: “As one who spends Saturdays the last 11 years protesting our wars in Central Square, I fear this vehicle.”

Fitzwilliam withdraws

Costa said this week he wants the public to have accurate information about the vehicle.

The BearCat would be used regionally, so if there is an emergency in another town, Keene police could respond, he said. There are already five or six of these armored-type vehicles in the state, he said, but none in southwestern New Hampshire.

“When this grant opportunity came up, it made a whole bunch of geographic sense,” Costa said.

All police chiefs in Cheshire County, as well as the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Department, have agreed to set aside $100 a year to pay into a maintenance fund for the BearCat.

But on Wednesday, Councilor Clark said he and other councilors had received a letter from Fitzwilliam selectmen saying their police chief had no authority to enter into the agreement and the town did not want to participate.

“I understand that there’s danger out there and I do care deeply about the safety of our police,” Clark said, but noted there have only been two murders in the city of 23,000 in the past 14 to 15 years and the city has never lost a policeman in the line of duty.

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