Concord City Council delays decision on BearCat grant
The Concord City Council met among a sea of supporters and opponents Monday night, August 12, 2013 to discuss and vote on whether the city will accept a $260,000 federal grant to purchase an armored vehicle called the BearCat. Far left, Chief John Duval of the Concord Police gave a presentation to council members. New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and supporters of the Free State Project represented those in opposition of the grant and purchase of the vehicle. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
After more than 150 protesters came to the Concord City Council’s chambers last night, the council delayed a decision on acquiring an armored BearCat vehicle.
The city council tabled a vote on accepting a $260,000 federal grant to purchase the BearCat after two hours of public testimony on the issue. The council will consider the item again at next month’s meeting.
“It requires much more debate than we have time for tonight,” Councilor Dan St. Hilaire said at 11 p.m., four hours into last night’s meeting. St. Hilaire chaired last night’s meeting; Mayor Jim Bouley was absent.
Dozens of people testified last night; most of them against the BearCat. The armored vehicle can protect against weapons as powerful as military grade, .50-caliber bullets. Concord is considering a grant on behalf of the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit. The BearCat would be stored in Concord, and the operation unit’s 20 member communities would share ongoing maintenance costs.
Police Chief John Duval said the vehicle is not armed with weapons and would be used as a rescue vehicle. He said it would replace a 30-year-old U.S. Air Force surplus Peacekeeper armored vehicle that is no longer reliable.
Outside the meeting last night, hundreds of members of the Free State Project played drums, chanted and held signs identifying themselves as citizens, neighbors and taxpayers.
Inside, the council’s chambers were filled to capacity before the meeting began; fire Chief Dan Andrus turned people away at the door. Standing close together in the packed room, many people held signs with messages such as “More Mayberry less Fallujah” and “Thanks but no tanks.”
The grant has drawn criticism in the past month. The city’s grant application submitted last year stated that three groups – the Free State Project, Occupy New Hampshire and Sovereign Citizens – “present daily challenges” to the police. Duval has since said he does not see the groups as domestic terrorists and admitted that the section of the application was poorly worded.
Carla Gericke, president of the Free State Project, said last night she has asked for an apology from Duval, but has not received one. She said she will go to the federal government with complaints over the claims in Concord’s grant application.
“We do not, as he claimed, pose daily challenges to the city of Concord,” Gericke said. “We are here as residents of New Hampshire, and we are also here as taxpayers of this country.”
City Manager Tom Aspell said that he and Duval have resubmitted the grant application and received confirmation that the grant would still be awarded without any mention of the Free State Project, Occupy New Hampshire or the Sovereign Citizens.
“And they sent us a letter that said, ‘Yes, we’ll accept your amendment to that application removing all those parties . . . and this new amendment would be in the file and based on the findings of the rest of the application standing on its own; you are still eligible for the grant.’ ”
Gericke responded to Aspell that it was “a great step in the right direction,” but she continued to question the police department’s ability to use the BearCat wisely.
The dozens of people who testified last night said they also had other problems – such as excessive federal spending and the militarization of the police – with the city’s acquisition of a BearCat.
“It’s a town that we roll up the sidewalks at five o’clock,” said resident Christopher Booth. “This is just not an appropriate vehicle, and I hope that Concord does the right thing and say, ‘no tank.’ ”
Irena Goddard of Concord told the council she grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and compared the city’s acquisition of a BearCat to communist leadership.
“I do not want this deadly intimidation force of a military vehicle to suppress free speech, much like what was done with communist military tanks in Czechoslovakia,” she said.
Others said they didn’t want to see a BearCat on the streets of Concord.
“The military industrial complex has infiltrated every part of our society to the point where it’s now happening in our hometowns, and we’re seeing stuff occur that people said would never happen in our own country,” said Jesse Mertz of Pembroke.
A few residents spoke in favor of the grant.
Kim Murdoch, president of the nonprofit Concord Public Safety Foundation, urged the council to accept the grant.
“The acquisition of this asset will not transform the Concord Police Department into a military organization any more than the surplus Air Force Peacekeeper armored vehicle did a decade ago,” she said. “The Peacekeeper is now 32 years old and in need of replacement.”
Tonya Rochette said she was disappointed by the disrespectful tone of some residents at last night’s hearing.
“While I appreciate the passion that’s gone into the thoughts, I am a bit concerned with the lack of openness and willingness to listen to others,” she said. “I’ve seen an incredible presence from the local police in the last five years especially.”
The city council can consider the tabled BearCat grant item at its next meeting Sept. 9.