By Susana Alvarez and Georgina Sandoval
While shouting, banging on windows and even chaining themselves to light fixtures, demonstrators demanded the rescindment of the Santa Cruz City Council’s approval of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase an armored police vehicle.
Police eventually escorted the demonstrators from the building, and the Dec. 9 meeting was postponed until Jan. 13, when protesters gathered once again wielding signs with slogans like, “Give back BearCat armored military vehicle,” “Give peace a chance” and “No thanks, no tanks.”
“I am wary of the militarization of our communities and I think this sets an incredibly bad precedent,” said Catherine Gunderson, who protested at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting. “I don’t feel like there is any need for something like this in Santa Cruz. [There’s] nothing that we’d need a tank like that for.”
Before deciding to postpone the Dec. 9 meeting, Santa Cruz City Council voted 6-1 in favor of accepting the $251,000 grant for the Ballistic Engineered Auto Response Counter Attack Truck (BearCat), with only one council member Micah Posner opposing.
While Mayor Don Lane said he didn’t know how long the city manager had been aware of this grant, it was not brought to the council’s attention until December. Lane explained that accepting a grant is normally a routine item in a council meeting.
“The police department and the city fire department brought this proposal to the City Council to accept this federal grant to purchase this armored vehicle,” Lane said. “The item was put on the consent agenda, which is usually reserved for items that are kind of routine. In most cases when the city accepts a grant, it is considered routine but obviously this one was not perceived that way by pretty much anyone.”
Ruth Valdez was among the protesters who did not see the motion to accept such a grant as a routine item because she said the armored vehicle can shoot tear gas and has the potential to have weapons embedded into it. For Valdez, accepting a grant to purchase an armored vehicle is a decision in which the City Council should have more of a voice.
“Council should be making those types of decisions,” Valdez said. “Not the city manager, who is not even elected.”
The BearCat is 8 feet tall, 20 feet long and 8 feet wide and weighs approximately 18,000 pounds, according to its manufacturer’s website, Lenco. The Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) will buy the Lenco BearCat G2, which Lieutenant Bernie Escalante of the SCPD said doesn’t have “guns or 50 caliber weapons to it like a tank.”
“There is certainly a doubt throughout the country about the militarization of law enforcement, and from our perspective, all we’re doing is trying to protect community members and protect first responders,” Escalante said. “It’s a defensive tool, a defensive piece of equipment that will be utilized to protect people and it’s only in response to increased levels of violence involving firearms and life threatening situations that we read and hear about all the time now.”
While not all community members see the purchase of the BearCat as outright militarization of police, some still expressed concern that acquiring the vehicle will not be beneficial for Santa Cruz. Dru Glover, a community member and founder of local advocacy group Project: Pollinate, said the new equipment is unnecessary.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say militarization but definitely reinforcement of the police infrastructure,” Glover said. “New equipment, weaponry, stuff like that — it costs the taxpayers money and is really unnecessary for the threats in Santa Cruz.”
While Santa Cruz’s coming acquisition of the BearCat is new, the use of a BearCat in Santa Cruz is not. Since Santa Clara is under a similar grant agreement that Santa Cruz will be under, Santa Clara is required to lend its vehicles to adjoining counties. Escalante said the BearCat has been borrowed on two occasions — once during a Watsonville homicide suspect barricade and in February 2013 when SCPD lost two officers during a gunbattle with a suspect.
Condensing the situations in which the BearCat would be used proved difficult due to the singularity of each situation, Escalante said. He hopes the arrival of the BearCat will quell concerns and answer questions about when the BearCat would be deployed.
“Any level of force we use, whether it’s verbal or physical or with some sort of piece of equipment, it all has to be justified and this is no different,” Escalante said. “The justification of its usage will happen every time it gets deployed.”
Though the BearCat has not officially been purchased, the BearCat will arrive within six months of when it is. Escalante wants the community to understand why the BearCat is being brought to Santa Cruz.
“Whether it’s law enforcement, medical personnel or fire personnel, we all have family and friends to go home to at the end of our shifts,” Escalante said. “It’s of the utmost importance to us in law enforcement to provide the most contemporary safe equipment to our people to allow them to go out there and do their job.”
Although the police department has expressed that they do not intend to use the vehicle against peaceful protesters, those opposed still express concern over what acquiring an armored vehicle would mean for local law enforcement.
“It is a sensitive time,” protester Gunderson said. “People are more sensitized to how police can abuse their authority.”