Concord city councilors weigh in on BearCat grant
Though the topic of acquiring an armored BearCat vehicle has been controversial in Concord, several city councilors said last week they plan to vote in favor of accepting the nearly $260,000 federal grant.
The council delayed a vote on the grant last Monday, after more than 150 people crowded into a meeting for hours of public input mostly in opposition to the BearCat. Councilors will discuss the issue and vote Sept. 9. To pass, the item will require a two-thirds vote, or support from 10 of 15 councilors.
In interviews last week, five councilors told the Monitor they intend to vote for the grant. Another five declined to offer their opinion or said they are still deciding. Only two councilors – Allen Bennett and Mark Coen – said they may vote against the grant. (Three councilors could not be reached for comment.)
“I happen to be very comfortable with the application and very comfortable with accepting delivery of that piece of equipment,” said Councilor Fred Keach. “I really don’t see it as an offensive tool at all. In fact, I think it’s very defensive in nature.”
The council heard testimony last week from dozens of people who criticized the city’s grant application for listing the Free State Project and Occupy New Hampshire as “daily challenges” for the police. They spoke against the militarization of the police and excessive federal spending, and cited fears that the armored vehicle could be used against law-abiding citizens.
Police Chief John Duval has apologized for naming groups in the grant application, and City Manager Tom Aspell said the city submitted an amended version. The BearCat would be stored in Concord but used by the 20 member communities in the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit. The armored vehicle can provide protection from military grade, .50-caliber bullets but is not equipped with weapons. Duval said it would be used as a rescue vehicle.
Councilor Dan St. Hilaire, who suggested tabling the vote, said it’s important to discuss the issue with the entire city council.
“I’m just kind of sitting back and waiting to discuss it with my fellow councilors,” he said. “There are obviously pros and cons to both sides of the issue, and I think one of the concerns is the grant application and the language in that. . . . On the other hand, there obviously is a need to replace the vehicle we have now.”
That current vehicle is an early 1980s U.S. Air Force Peacekeeper. It’s an armored vehicle like the Lenco BearCat, Duval said, but it is often in disrepair and has broken down while responding to a call.
Councilor Steve Shurtleff said the city’s history with the Peacekeeper should allay some concerns. He intends to vote for the grant.
“It was nice getting the public input, but some of the fears that were brought up, I think they lost some of their steam insofar as . . . some of the things people predicted would happen if we acquired the BearCat didn’t happen when we possessed the Peacekeeper,” Shurtleff said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of merit to their arguments.”
Coen agreed that the Peacekeeper needs to be replaced. But he said he has concerns with voting for the grant “as written,” given the application’s references to the Free State Project, Occupy New Hampshire and the Sovereign Citizens.
Coen did voice support for Duval and said he is not worried about the militarization of the Concord Police Department.
“So it’s just an unfortunate grant-writing exercise and certainly shouldn’t wipe out all the good stuff that (Duval is) doing,” he said.
Bennett said he will vote against the grant.
“I don’t think we’re in that situation where we need this and it’s very, very important to the city of Concord,” he said. “It’s a vehicle, and vehicles are needed sometimes, but what we really need is a good police department with good officers who are trained well. And I think that we have that.”
If the city needs an armored vehicle, Bennett said, it can call another community that has one.
Some councilors have not decided whether to vote for the grant. Councilor Dick Patten said he wants to hear from more of his constituents.
“I was not even aware that we had a Peacekeeper one until last (Monday) night,” he said. “I never even heard of such a thing.”
Councilor Keith Nyhan described some of the concerns he heard last week as “baseless,” such as the militarization of local police forces. But he said he does sympathize with the concerns about federal spending.
“Going into the debate next month I am going to remain open-minded and listen to my fellow councilors,” Nyhan said. “I am very confident that the council will make a correct decision based on all the facts we know.”
Mayor Jim Bouley, who was out of town during last week’s council meeting, said he is leaning toward accepting the grant.
“Since I got home, I watched the video of the meeting and I was very pleased with the quality of the testimony, and I was pleased with the level of discussion,” Bouley said. “I will be looking forward to sitting down with my fellow councilors at the next meeting for a public discussion of the grant.”
Councilor Michael DelloIacono said the Peacekeeper needs to be replaced.
“I just think it’s a good choice,” DelloIacono said. “I was a little concerned last (week) that people seemed to be using it as a fear factor that all the sudden we’re going to have this quote unquote tank – which is definitely not a tank – patrolling the streets of Concord.”
Councilor Liz Blanchard also does not believe the vehicle would be used inappropriately. She intends to vote in favor of the BearCat, but she said she is glad the vote was delayed so she can review the controversial language in the grant application.
“Honestly, I mean I can’t imagine that the Concord Police Department . . . just because they buy this BearCat, that they’re going to suddenly start a civil war and be aggressive toward the Free Staters,” she said. “So I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and possibly a misinterpretation of the intent of the wording. But I do want to read that (application), but I don’t think it’s going to change my mind.”
It takes time to process input from dozens of people, said Councilor Jennifer Kretovic. She said she has not made a decision, and needs to consider “what is the greater message here?”
“It’s hard to do that on the spot, particularly when we had so much testimony,” Kretovic said.
Others disagreed; Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton said she wanted to hold the vote last Monday. She declined to say last week how she intended to vote on the grant.
“I heard a lot of compelling arguments on both sides, and I voted against the tabling motion because I was anxious to move forward with the discussion, and I felt that we owed it to the great number of constituents and members of the public statewide to begin this important discussion,” she said.
Councilors Candace Bouchard and Jan McClure could not be reached for comment. Councilor Rob Werner was not present at the meeting and did not return a message left last week.