A recent March 31 article from Alternet.com noted four shocking examples of police militarization in America’s small towns; the first was none-other than Keene, N.H. Among Keene, also listed were the cities of Ogden, Utah, Columbia, S.C. and Paragould, Ark.
Many are questioning why such quiet small towns with low crime rates and low populations are in need of such militarized weapons. It is time we reevaluate if these vehicles and other weapons are truly necessary.
The city of Keene’s Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or BearCat, which was featured in Alternet.com’s article is now world-renowned as the article was picked up in Australia and Russia. This article is bringing attention back to the controversial BearCat. Even Keene’s First Baptist Church’s Pastor Mark Ferrin asked the question, “Would Jesus Ride into Keene on a BearCat?” at worship on April 13, according to the Keene Sentinel Religion Briefs.
The fact that other countries have noticed Keene’s militarization calls for a reality check. Writer of the Alternet.com article, Aaron Contú, states this movement of militarized police departments is the result of the culture wars of the 1960s and a combination of the war on drugs, fear of inner city crime, and anxieties over the threat of terrorism.
Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University said he believes it is not a need that drives these small towns but the fear of being left behind.
According to Kraska, there were only about 3,000 raids by Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units per year in the early 1980s. Now, there are about 50,000. Investigative journalist and author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” Radley Balko, found that 75 percent of all towns with 25,000 to 50,000 people had their own SWAT teams by the year 2000. According to Balko, the Pentagon had provided surplus military gear to more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in America by 2005.
In 2012, Keene accepted a grant of $285,933 from the Department of Defense (DOD) to purchase the militaristic vehicle. According to Contú, this grant was offered through the 1033 program signed into law back in 1997 that “created a pipeline” for the DOD to pass on surplus military gear to local police departments. Although there was great resistance from the residents of Keene, especially at the town meetings held by City Councillor Terry Clark back in 2012, the Keene Police Department started to use the BearCat in the Fall of 2012.
Keene, a city with a population of about 23,000 and a murder count of three between the years of 1999 and 2012, is now questionably equipped with a BearCat. Surrounding cities have even signed pacts with Keene to borrow the BearCat when needed, according to Contú. As of the summer of 2013, the BearCat had been used 21 times as stated by Contú. Nineteen times were for training exercises while the remaining two were for responses to a barricaded person and a person threatening suicide.
According to an article in The Equinox from February of 2012 by Leah Hughes, the Pumpkin Festival and Red Sox Riots were cited in Keene’s grant application as examples for when the BearCat could be used.
Surprisingly enough, the BearCat was not used this past year in the riots of Keene State College students celebrating the 2013 Red Sox World Series Champions back in October. It also was not used at Pumpkin Fest despite the estimated 3,500 person party on Winchester Court, according to an article in The Equinox by Karina Barriga Albring.
Towns with 20,000 people do not need militaristic vehicles or weapons like the BearCat. By using the BearCat for mostly training purposes and not using it at either The Pumpkin Fest or the Red Sox Riot, Keene Police Department has proved that it is not needed.
Representative J.R. Hoell, a Republican from Dunbourton, proposed House Bill 1307, that would prevent communities from buying military hardware, according to an article by New Hampshire Public Radio’s Chris Jensen. According to Jensen, six of the 13 representatives from North Country voted against killing the bill but the House voted 195-138 to kill the bill.
The Concord Monitor stated that Hoell was worried about police becoming increasingly militarized.
Between 2002 and 2011, the Department of Homeland Security gave out $35 billion in grants to local and state police for militarized defense, according to Economist.com.
The Pentagon gives militarized hardware to police departments across the nation at almost no cost, which was the case for Keene’s BearCat. SWAT teams were originally intended for extremely dangerous and high risk occurrences, such as murderers or hostage takers. The police departments defended their defense weapons and vehicles by stating these purchases provide invaluable protection to their police officers in dangerous situations, but it appears that these units are not responding to serious high risk events.
According to Contú, SWAT teams are most commonly used for drug-related cases now. The fears of terrorism and high-crime levels along with the war on drugs have essentially contributed to the militarism of small towns but we need to start being more realistic. We are spending money for small towns to feel like they are not being left behind in comparison to larger cities.
It is about time we re-evaluate the actual need for such programs and grants that result in militarized quiet little towns.
Taylor Howe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org