Concord’s BearCat grant sparks debate
A federal grant that Concord received to purchase an armored rescue vehicle has drawn opposition from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, supporters of the Free State Project and about 90 people who have signed an online petition urging the city council to reject the nearly $260,000 grant.
But city councilors said the criticism won’t necessarily affect their votes on the grant, because most of the opposition hasn’t come from Concord residents. Of the 90 petition signatures that Mayor Jim Bouley had received via email by yesterday afternoon, only five came from Concord residents.
“I clearly appreciate everyone’s input, but I always will put the interest of the Concord residents first, and I have not heard from many Concord residents,” Bouley said.
The city council will vote Aug. 12 on whether to accept the grant and purchase a BearCat. As an armored rescue vehicle, the BearCat provides protection against weapons as strong as military-grade, .50-caliber bullets. Police Chief John Duval said the vehicle isn’t equipped with weapons, and would be used by the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit to protect officers in emergency situations.
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and supporters of the Free State Project began voicing concern after they read the city’s grant application, which they said unfairly targets certain groups.
Concord’s application to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security includes a statement about potential threats to public safety.
“We are fortunate that our state has not been victimized from a mass casualty event from an international terrorism strike however on the domestic front, the threat is real and here,” it states. “Groups such as the Sovereign Citizens, Free Staters and Occupy New Hampshire are active and present daily challenges,” the application states. “Outside of the officially organized groups, there are several homegrown clusters that are anti-government and pose problems for law enforcement agencies.”
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, read Concord’s application after filing a Right-to-Know request with the city. She said the application implies that certain groups are domestic terror threats.
“In reading the application, I think the main and most prominent concern was the fact that the application cited nonviolent, ideological organizations like the Free Staters and the Occupy New Hampshire movement as a justification for needing the armored vehicle,” Chaffee said. “And it’s just not clear why an armored vehicle would be at all necessary to address these movements.”
Duval said that interpretation takes his views out of context. But that section “should have been more adequately explained,” he said.
“I’ll be explicit: I do not think that those three organizations that were mentioned as examples are domestic terrorist groups,” Duval said. “We have groups and organizations, and there are many, many others – those are just three examples – that because of their view, at times, create a polarizing situation.”
‘Approach with protection’
Individuals, not those groups, may engage in disruptive or unsafe behavior, Duval said. But large rallies or protests are only one reason he thinks the city needs a BearCat. It could also be used for rescue missions, violent mental health crises and hostage situations.
The BearCat’s purpose is to allow the police “to approach with protection,” Duval said. “That’s all that it is. It has no weapons capabilities whatsoever.”
City Councilor Steve Shurtleff said the BearCat is a “tremendous law enforcement tool,” especially in situations such as the death of Greenland police Chief Michael Maloney while serving a warrant for a drug arrest last year.
“I personally hope there’s never really a need to use it, but it’s nice to know that if we have an incident such as the terrible tragedy in Greenland last year, that we have the equipment,” Shurtleff said.
For some who identify with the Free State Project, the group’s mention in the grant application was alarming. Sandy Pierre of Weare moved to New Hampshire from California 10 years ago to join the Free State Project, and she described the group as nonviolent.
“I’ve heard of cases where some Free Staters don’t want to follow tradition and do things like stand up in a courtroom (for a judge),” she said. “But I would say that group is in the minority. And even so, they’ve never been violent.”
Bouley said it’s appropriate for the city to accept the grant and purchase a BearCat.
“You never want to put our city employees and our public safety in harm, and if this protects them when they do their job, then I think it’s appropriate,” he said.
City Councilor Mark Coen said he doesn’t feel pressured to vote against the grant based on concerns from people outside of Concord, but he does have some questions. He said yesterday that he’s “not looking at this favorably.”
“My biggest concern was, even before this (petition) started, the financial ramifications of accepting a vehicle and the cost of ongoing maintenance going forward and training and everything else, what the city of Concord’s burden would be financially on it.”
The federal grant will cover the cost of the vehicle. Duval said it would be stored in Concord, but used and maintained by the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit, which has 20 member communities. Duval said the special operations unit would pay for the BearCat’s maintenance.
Issue of federal spending
Doris Hohensee of Nashua began the petition at change.org this week because she was alarmed to hear that certain groups were targeted in the city’s grant application. She said she is not affiliated with any of the groups, but wanted to speak out.
“We have a problem with money at the federal level,” she said. “We’re spending endlessly, and when it comes to states, nobody knows how to say no. . . . We do not need a tank in Concord because our people are not violent.”
Bouley said he’s personally heard from some Concord residents who support the city’s purchase of a BearCat.
“One gentleman came up and said to me . . . ‘It’s unfortunate that we need to train for this type of stuff, but when and if it ever happened, it’s good to know that our law enforcement officers will be ready, but hopefully we’ll never have to use it,’ ” he said.
But Chaffee said some questions should be answered before Concord accepts the grant: “Is this equipment really needed? And how will it be used? And what are the limitations on its use?”
Regardless of the city council’s decision, she said the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating law enforcement tactics across the country. The organization has filed hundreds of Right-to-Know requests in 26 states to document police use of military equipment.
“Generally, there is a concern that the use of militarized equipment and militarized tactics . . . will lead to overly aggressive policing,” she said.