By Kari Huus, msnbc.com
The city of Keene, N.H., population 23,000, nestled in a valley in the state’s southwest corner, may not be the first place that comes to mind as a terrorism target, but this summer it will take delivery on a $286,000 armored vehicle, compliments of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Lenco “BearCat,” fitted with thermal imaging, radiation and explosive gas detection systems, gun mounts and rotating hatch is but one example of the kind of quasi-military equipment that has been acquired by local and state law enforcement agencies through billions of dollars worth of federal grant money in the last decade.
“The specialized-mission CBRNE/WMD rescue vehicle will help to guard against a terrorist or (chemical, biological, nuclear, and enhanced conventional weapons/weapons of mass destruction) incident,” said the successful federal grant application filed by the city.
The application noted that Keene hosts several events that draw large crowds each year — such as the annual Pumpkin Festival and Clarence DeMar Marathon — lies on major corridor used by trucks carrying hazardous materials and is a designated evacuation area if there is a nuclear accident at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vt. It also pointed out that the city is situated on two flood prone rivers, and Bearcats have proven useful for rescues and patrols during natural disasters.
The Keene City Council voted on Dec. 15 to accept the Homeland Security grant for the equipment as requested by the police. Approval was unsurprising, said City Manager John MacLean.
“The council saw it like I did,” said MacLean, “as a legitimate request … to make safe our department and our community by the use of a too. … It didn’t occur to everybody how big an issue it would be for other reasons.”
MacLean was referring to swift and furious opposition that surfaced soon after the vote, from the liberal wing of the college town, from Libertarian and Tea Party members and from activists from as far away as New Mexico, according to local politicians.
“Almost the next day, the calls started to come into the radio station, the newspaper was inundated with letters to the editor for the next several weeks, extraordinary because the deal was supposed to be done,” said Terry Clark, a councilman who had voted against using the grant. “There was so much about this issue not to like.”
Clark opposed the use of the grant because he thought it wrong to for the U.S. government to lavish money on military grade equipment at the same time it is making deep cuts in funding for education and other mandated programs — costs that he says are now falling on local property taxpayers.
“I thought it was just unconscionable,” he said. “The city of Keene doesn’t have to enable these people. We can tell them ‘no, we don’t think this is a good way to spend money.”
Clark lobbied for the City Council to hold public discussion and then take a new vote. It did so this month, then again voted to approve the Bearcat purchase, though by fewer votes this time.
Across the country — in major cities, but also in relatively rural settings — police have added armored vehicles, hazmat protection, body armor, riot gear, drones and other military grade gear to their toolboxes in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
According to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the federal government has doled out some $34 billion in grants like the one approved for the Keene police force.
When some of that gear was visibly employed for crowd control during the recent Occupy protests, it fueled controversy about how the equipment was to be used.
But some law enforcers say the equipment provides a sense of security.
In Bossier Parish, La., the sheriff’s department acquired a Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport — a heavily armored vehicle that has gun ports and a turret — in 2009 with federal grant money. The vehicle was a tool for the SWAT team to use in the event of a high-threat situation, according to public information officer Bill Davis.
“If you’ve got an active shooter and he has some heavy weaponry we need to be one step ahead,” said Davis.
The BATT has been used only for training so far, he said, comparing it tp the handguns officers carry.
“People want to know if the cavalry needs to be called out, we’re coming. … We are no longer Mayberry,” he added, referring to the northwest Louisiana parish. “This is the fastest growing parish in Louisiana and with that growth is the potential of more crime in the area, and we want to be prepared.”
In Keene, MacLean, the city manager, said the debate over the BearCat purchase opened some eyes on both sides of the debate.
“I think we have two sets of conversations going, both of which are legitimate,” he said. “The (police) chief said it could save lives… If this has potential to save lives, and the lives of the people they work with, why wouldn’t they (acquire it)? But it’s been brought into a separate conversation about militarization of the police.”