Managing Executive Editor
Rusty Jacks, a SWAT team commander out of Tyler, Texas, was stationed in an armored vehicle while an accused murderer unloaded 45 bullets from his AK-47 rifle. Bullets were flying all around the vehicle, hitting the windshield, windows and armored plating. Jacks was dispatched to the home of the man who had allegedly murdered the son of the city’s former governor. When the man answered the door, his response to the sniper and armored vehicle on his front lawn was to start shooting. The man was eventually shot dead by the sniper, and on that day, Oct.22, 2010, Rusty Jacks was grateful his life and the rest of his officers’ lives were saved by the armored vehicle his police department had provided his team, a Lenco BearCat.
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Residents in Keene may be seeing this new creature on the prowl, which arrived in town on Wednesday, Nov. 21, right before the Thanksgiving holiday. A year ago, Keene’s City Council quietly voted 13-1 to accept a Homeland Security Grant, worth $285,933 to purchase the armored vehicle from a company called Lenco, based out of Pittsfield, Mass. One year later, the BearCat has still invoked the animosity of members of the community who claim the purchasing of the BearCat is the city of Keene’s attempt at militarizing its police force. Within City Council, a few opponents of the BearCat have voiced their concerns over the armored vehicle, while some think it was a vital purchase.
The BearCat, an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, is typically used in hostage situations to transport officers to and from the sight of an incident. It has been used by other police departments in hostage and rescue situations and it can also be used for protection of civilians during a possible terror attack. The BearCat is built on an F-150 truck chassis with military grade armor. Also included in the vehicle is infrared cameras used to detect heat, so if officers were looking for someone, the infrared will be able to pick up on the person’s body heat and will allow officers to locate the person, according to Keene Police Department Captain Brian Costa. With two large benches in the back, the vehicle can hold up to ten officers, according to Captain Costa. As one officer noted, the BearCat has a turret on the top, which will not be equipped with a weapon, but if the situation presented itself, an officer with a gun could use the turret on the vehicle.
Assembling the animal
Lenco assembled and put together the BearCat. According to Len Light, the CEO, the company has a small task force of 85 employees. Light said some of his clientele include police departments around the U.S., a national police force in Morocco, and the U.S. state department. Primarily, however, Light says his company’s focus is on police departments. “We’re not a military contractor,” he said. “Our vehicles are designed for police and are adapted by the military actually, not the other way around.”
Light said after a vehicle is ordered, it typically takes five to six months for it to be completed. BearCats use military-grade armor from a company called Mil-Specs, according to Light. All of his suppliers are in the United States because he “believes in keeping the U.S. economy going.”
“The government authorizes the armor to be used as military grade,” he said. “Very few companies make it. It’s expensive, but that’s what we use. There’s no such thing as bulletproof, only bullet resistant. We make sure our trucks stop the bullets we say they’re going to stop.”
Rusty Jacks, the SWAT team commander in a city of 100,000 in Texas, said the BearCat is a necessary, life-saving tool, especially in a situation like what he experienced in 2010. He explained the shoot-out and how the BearCat was a vital tool in saving his life and the rest of his officers’ lives.
“We went out, and the guy started shooting the vehicle 45 times. It was two months after we got it. We’ve used it where people are shooting. It’s a fantastic piece of equipment,” he said. No officers were killed or injured as a result of the armor on the vehicle. Jacks said the BearCat is used a few times a month and is available for many of the surrounding towns, calling it a regional asset.
“Every agency should have access to one,” Jacks said. “No matter the size of the town, it only takes one person with a high powered rifle to hurt a lot of people. I was driving it when it got shot up that day, and it saved officers’ lives.” Jacks emphasized that it only takes one officer being placed in the intensive care unit after a confrontation for the vehicle to have made it’s money back.
BearCat training and use
Jacks said there was no special training involved with the BearCat, only some basic information on how the vehicle was driven. In order for his department to receive the BearCat, they needed to go to Pittsfield, Mass. to sign for it, and it was driven on an 18-wheeler down to Texas.
Light said his company gives officers a tutorial on how to drive the vehicle before the officers can take it home with them. “They don’t hand it over, and say ‘here, have fun.’ We need to train them on how to use it just as a vehicle, not tactics. It’s not unlike driving a U-Haul truck. They need to know how heavy it is,” he said. Captain Costa of KPD said the department sent four officers down to Pittsfield, Mass. to sign off for the vehicle and receive their training. “The process now is putting together a training package and training all of our police officers,” Costa said. “It’s a vehicle, a big vehicle. There are no weapons on it because it’s a transport vehicle.” Costa said the role of the BearCat will be “reactive,” and that it’s use will be dependent on the situation the department is facing.
Light acknowledged that it’s a very expensive piece of equipment, so the Homeland Security Grants allow agencies to purchase one, but without spending their town’s or city’s money which could go towards education and paying teachers.
“It’s been a real benefit for police, as well as fire departments. It’s all about first responders. They need to be the first person on the scene and they need to be prepared for when they do,” he said.
Mayor Kendall Lane voted in favor of accepting the grant for the BearCat because as he saw it, the BearCat is just another piece of equipment. Mayor Lane said in flooding situations, people with firearms, as well as lockdown situations, the BearCat would be useful to safely get officers in and out of the location as needed.
“In the past, we’ve used fire engines in those situations, and it’s not a good vehicle for doing that,” he said. “We run the risk of damaging a half million dollar of a fire apparatus to extricate people in firearm situations.”
The mayor said he has yet to see the BearCat. “I haven’t been looking for it,” he said. “I suspect it’s being stored at 350 Marlboro St. behind the police station. It’s probably being kept there. I haven’t been curious enough to go see what it looked like. I’ll have the opportunity to see it once it comes out for training.”
A community in an uproar
Not everyone is in favor of Keene having a BearCat, however. Many members of the community saw it as the police becoming militarized. In a city of approximately 25,000 people, some say, what need is there for an armored vehicle?
City Councilman Terry Clark, is one of the BearCat’s most outspoken opponents. Having one of these vehicles, Clark says, is “a boondoggle.”
“A Congressional report showed that this Homeland Security Grant for domestic terrorism is an overreaction to 9/11, more than a decade ago, and it’s a waste of money. It’s a misdirection of resources. We have much more to deal with, like education,” Clark said. Clark said that there are five others in the state, so Keene’s BearCat is just unnecessary.
“This is ridiculous. There are other means to take care of police enforcement. This is just a deal with the arms dealers,” he said.
Clark said Lenco has a five page PDF on their website on how to get a BearCat so Lenco is walking towns through the process of obtaining one. “It’s just nonsense. They don’t need it,” he said.
The Keene Police Department chose to have a public showing of the BearCat on Dec. 8 from 9 to 11a.m. at the department on Marlboro St. As far as the timing of the showing, 9-11, Clark said “it’s eerie. I don’t know why they chose that time,” relating it to Sept. 11.
Despite it being a cold, dreary, and drizzling morning, many people showed up out of curiosity to see the BearCat, but others were there to protest. Various signs at the showing read, “No thanks, no tanks” and “money for vets, not cats,” and “stop militarizing our police.”
Ian Freeman of freekeene.com, said he and his friends have been involved in opposing the BearCat for the past year, and “this is the culmination of the whole thing. We wanted to make sure people haven’t forgotten about who voted for this, I think city councilors who supported the BearCat need to keep that in mind for the upcoming election,” he said. “Even when the super majority of the people in Keene opposed it, they still voted for it.” Freeman wanted to make sure people knew he still opposed the BearCat and would be keeping a close eye on how it was being used. Before Freeman’s group left the showing, Captain Costa turned and thanked Freeman “for being reasonable.”
When asked his opinion of the protesters at the showing, Costa said, “Honestly, I think that’s the most beautiful part of this country, that they get to express their opinion. Not many other countries can say that.”
Military muscle for local law enforcement?
Mayor Lane said nothing has changed in regards to the police department. Militarization, he said, is a matter of mentality. “The reality is, the same people are going to be there before we got the BearCat. Is the police force trained? Are they prepared? With good training, the police force isn’t going to act any different afterwards.” Mayor Lane said the real issue people should focus on is the appropriation of federal money.
“It’s about whether or not this is a wise way to use federal homeland money. Once it’s appropriated and the grant is issued, the local communities will take advantage of it. It should be a more federal issue as to whether or not it should be used,” Lane said.
According to the Huffington Post, Senator Tom Coburn did a report, and his findings showed that the Department of Homeland Security has wasted federal money on equipment such as the BearCat. In his report, he noted the $7.1 billion program that was launched in 2003 wastes money. According to Coburn, “Police in Clovis, Calif., deployed their armored BearCat truck, which typically costs about $250,000, for an Easter egg hunt, while a sheriff in New York state showcased his similar tank-like vehicle in 10 parades over the course of a year.” According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the police have increasingly been equipped with pseudo-militaristic equipment such as assault rifles, drones, and armored vehicles. A report from the Center for Investigative Reporting noted, “…a review of records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two-dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.”
One of the spectators at the BearCat showing also thought too much money had been parceled out to purchase the vehicle. “I think it’s a beefed up transport vehicle. It’s a waste of money,” Keene State College student Lorne Currier said.
The CEO of Lenco, Light, said he didn’t want the police militarize. His company, according to him, helps save lives. The police department, he said, “could almost be held liable if they don’t have it. I don’t see it as a bad thing. When you look at police, they are our neighbors, people have gone to school with these guys,” said Light. “Don’t you want to protect their lives? You want to begrudge them life-saving equipment? Firefighters are not begrudged their fire trucks. It’s what their jobs are.”
Jacks, the Texas SWAT team commander, also brought up the point of purchasing fire trucks in comparison to purchasing a BearCat. “It’s kind of ridiculous, really. I kind of laugh. Nobody bats an eye when the fire department buys one of those. An armored vehicle gets people up in arms. If it was their loved one, they would want [the police] to have the best equipment available,” he said.
Jodee Sasway, a public information officer from Carlsbad, Calif. said her police department just received their BearCat in October, and it was used the week it arrived. Carlsbad, Calif. is a seacoast city of nearly 100,000 people, and their BearCat is used by other communities in the area. Sasway said the BearCat is a tool to ensure the well-being of her community.
“Public safety is our number one goal for a police department and helping surrounding communities and having a vehicle like this, it’s a regional asset that can help us in critical incidences and it already has helped us in these situations,” Sasway said. Sasway emphasized that because it is a standardized piece of equipment with little training involved, it is a vital part of ensuring people’s safety.
“Keep in mind these are tools for the community and we can go in and rescue people and bring them to safety. It’s a very versatile vehicle in any emergency services department,” she said.
Keene City Councilman Carl Jacobs was one of the other opponents of the BearCat when it was brought up for reconsideration in March of this year. The final vote, 9-4, was disappointing for Jacobs. “ I voted against it. I understood there were more pressing needs that the police department had that were not being met. It bothered me that we were getting this BearCat,” he said. Now that the police department has one, he said, he believes the police department will use it responsibly.
Light pointed out that in a rural area such as Keene, many people have hunting rifles. Hunting rifles, he said, are equivalent to sniper rifles. “ If you haven’t had a shooting, you’re lucky. Do I think you guys are ripe for it? Yes. What are you supposed to do when it does? How do you expect them to protect themselves? That’s really the issue,” Light said.
Community members speak out against city council vote
Terry Clark, the city councilman who opposes the BearCat said, “I can only say people need to be more vigilant electing their congress people,” he said. “It’s just a crime that we don’t have representation that can make common sense decisions.”
In addition, Freeman from freekeene.com, also advocated that people use their vote to elect people who would accurately represent them instead of a city council that voted to accept a grant when the majority of the community opposed it, he said.
As far as the cost to the city, Mayor Lane said it would be extremely minimal. “The amount of money for the taxpayers is miniscule,” Mayor Lane emphasized. “The cost of the city from the BearCat will only be a few hundred dollars. It’s just another piece of equipment. If we don’t need it, we will keep it stored away.”
Lane said people need to relax about the issue. “It’s really an F-150 with armored plating on the back. It’s not a tank. It’s not really all that special. I think people should take a deep breath and recognize its one more piece of equipment available if we need it,” he said.
One spectator at the BearCat showing walked up to an officer and said, “I don’t see a tank here, do you see one?” to which the officer laughed and replied, “Me neither.” Meanwhile, the protestors sang in the background and carried their signs, “Thanks but no tanks!”
Keene Police Chief Ken Meola declined to comment.