Juneau’s police and fire department leaders found themselves playing the role of car salesmen on Monday in trying to convince the Assembly to support the purchase of an armored security vehicle, dubbed by some of the initially dubious politicians as a “tank.”
Their collective reaction after a lengthy pitch was, essentially, you closed the deal on the vehicle, but we don’t like the military-grade color.
“I definitely think this vehicle needs to be a different color,” Assembly member Christine Woll said, referring to slide presentation photos of a monotone gray model of the big, boxy transport. “It can’t look like what we see in these pictures here. It’s a small thing, but I think it helps people understand what’s coming toward them in that moment.”
The police department provoked a lot of startled reactions last week from the Assembly, and subsequently the public, when plans to purchase a Lenco Armored Vehicles BearCat G3 became known. The BearCat is a customizable all-steel armored vehicle that accommodates up to 12 fully-equipped officers, and used by police departments and other agencies for everything from rescues in difficult-to-access remote areas to “extremist” protests where gunfire and other threats are present.
The Juneau Police Department envisions using the BearCat to respond to natural disasters such as landslides and avalanches where road access is impossible for existing vehicles, as well as high-threat situations such as evacuating people from neighborhoods while under gunfire, Deputy Police Chief David Campbell told the Assembly’s Committee of the Whole.
“A tremendous amount of thought went into this here – it’s not a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “To me my question isn’t why do we need this, it’s why haven’t we had this all along?”
But the concerns about militarization among Assembly members – which weren’t entirely quelled by the presentation – did catch police department officials off-guard.
“There’s some community concern out there that quite frankly I overlooked,” he said, referring to the labeling of the vehicle as a tank and apprehension about militarizing the police department. “It’s a vehicle that was purposely built for first responders. It’s not a piece of military equipment.”
The vehicle will be shared with firefighters, with Capital City Fire/Rescue Assistant Chief Travis Mead telling Assembly members he considers it “a really tough, heavy-duty ambulance.”
“So when we do have a natural disaster and there’s debris on the road — it could be ice, it could be rocks, you name it – this is a vehicle that can bash its way through,” he said.
The vehicle would also provide protection for firefighters if they find themselves under attack from an armed person or facing other threats during a rescue or firefighting operation, Mead said.
Assembly members noted Lenco states at its website its vehicles are used for military purposes and BearCat can be configured to include heavy-duty weaponry. Campbell said no weaponry is part of the custom-configured vehicle the department is purchasing for about $300,000 using a grant, but among its uses locally are situations where others pose a threat with weapons such as an active shooter situation which required the evacuation of nearby homes.
“Officers were carrying people through the woods in the dead of night to safety,” he said. “If we had this vehicle we could have had people enter the vehicle in a very short time.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that every person in this town might at some time potentially need this vehicle,” Campbell added.
Use of the vehicle would be determined by strict policies and chain-of-command established by the department, and only “during the most extreme situations,” he said.
The BearCat has the same manufacturer of other vehicles used by the department, so existing personnel will ensure additional maintenance costs are minimal, Campbell said.
Assembly member Carole Triem said she feels better about the department obtaining the vehicle following the presentation, but remains concerned about the reactions of residents about the department’s use-of-force policies following an officer-involved shooting in 2019 that prompted months of heated debate and a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed
“I think that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the issue of police transparency and accountability,” she said, adding “I totally understand the need to have safety in mind when discussing these policies, but I think we should be discussing them more.”
Assembly members unanimously agreed to treat the BearCat acquisition as an information item by the committee, rather than sending it to the full Assembly for public comment and further evaluation. But Mayor Beth Weldon said while the police can proceed as planned with acquiring and using the vehicle, it’s not the last word on the subject,
“I think you’re getting a pretty loud and clear message about the safety of the police department, fire department and civilians,” she said. “Please keep that in mind with your policies.”