Editorial: Local police don’t need Legislature’s meddling
Just when we thought the BearCat wars had ended, now comes state Rep. JR Hoell of Dunbarton with a new tactic in this unlikely debate. He wants the state to prohibit New Hampshire cities and towns from doing what the Concord City Council did last year: purchase an armored vehicle for its police department.
We have some sympathy for Hoell’s effort. We were skeptical about the city’s need for the BearCat last year and remain so. We were distressed by former chief John Duval’s initial grant application, which implied Concord might use the BearCat in dealing with members of the Free State Project and other political groups. We think the militarization of local police departments – in this case encouraged by the federal government, which awarded Concord a $258,000 grant to pay for the BearCart – is wrongheaded.
Hoell’s bill, partly inspired by the city BearCat debate, would specifically prohibit state agencies and local communities, except for the New Hampshire National Guard, from acquiring military-equipped vehicles or equipment not readily available in an open national commercial market. It is ill-conceived. And from a legislator who typically argues on behalf of small government, it seems like a strange example of over-reach from the state. Do local public safety agencies and elected officials really need the Legislature to tell them how to equip their officers? We’ve seen no sign of it.
In the end, the lengthy Concord BearCat debate was actually an example of local government – local control – working well, not poorly.
Residents from Concord and beyond got wind of the BearCat proposal as well as the chief’s clumsy application to support it. Opponents picketed outside a city council meeting, they participated in a public hearing, they collected 1,500 signatures on a petition. They certainly got the council’s attention.
When the council voted for the BearCat nonetheless, some of the project’s most passionate critics signed up to run for the city council themselves, using the BearCat vote as a key part of their platform. Not only did Concord not need a BearCat, they argued, but the vote was an example of the council’s ignoring the will of the public.
During the election, incumbents who had voted for the BearCat reported that they’d heard from many constituents who supported their vote – if, perhaps, more quietly than the opponents. They pointed to incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing and even the Sandy Hook school shooting as evidence that the local police needed the best equipment possible. And, they argued, the issue didn’t rise to the level of importance of many other challenges facing the city.
Ultimately, BearCat opponents lost. Whether the broader public wasn’t as concerned about the issue as they were or whether the candidates failed to make their case effectively is a matter of debate. But the BearCat is on its way. That’s the way democracy works.
For residents still uneasy with local police departments purchasing such equipment, the correct forum for debate remains local. Actually, there’s an equally strong argument that BearCat opponents should take their case to Washington – and to the New Hampshire delegation to Congress – where Homeland Security grants encourage this sort of purchase.
But encouraging the Legislature to micromanage local communities is the wrong way to go.