June 27, 2012
By Doug Oakley
The Berkeley City Council chastised the Police Department this week for submitting a federal grant to acquire a $169,000 armored vehicle it will share with UC Berkeley and Albany police to defend officers in shootouts and rescue operations.
The council voted unanimously on Tuesday to request more information from the city manager on the Lenco Bearcat armored car's funding and purpose.
Council members were not happy, saying they were kept in the dark about a large acquisition that bears a resemblance to military equipment.
"It's pretty clear this is just one way to keep the weapons producers fat and happy," said Councilwoman Linda Maio. "I'm really sorry we got involved in this. It's very inconsistent with our culture and our values. We need to talk about what we're thinking before we act."
The issue first came up at the June 19 council meeting, during discussion of a package of police reforms. Berkeley police Chief Michael Meehan told the council that the grant application was approved, but the vehicle has not been delivered.
Berkeley police submitted the grant, but UC Berkeley police will own the vehicle and share it with Berkeley and Albany, Meehan told the council.
At that meeting, Meehan said it would only be used to protect police from gunfire and to rescue people in areas exposed to gunfire.
UC Berkeley police Chief Mitch Celaya said Wednesday the vehicle is needed in an increasingly violent, gun-filled world. Oakland, Livermore and Fremont already have similar vehicles.
The Berkeley council first learned about its Police Department's acquisition of the vehicle after Berkeley Copwatch alerted residents to it through a Public Records Act request, said Councilman Jesse Arreguin.
"Because the council and public was not informed about this application, getting this information will be helpful," Arreguin said Tuesday. "I am concerned that the university Police Department will have this vehicle because they have a very mixed record on how they respond to civil disobedience and protests."
The three police departments have yet to decide where to house the vehicle in a central location, Celaya said, and agree on a policy for how it will be used. Meehan said he will work with the Berkeley Police Review Commission to come up with a policy for its use.
"I understand people's feelings about the militarization of the police," Meehan said at the June 19 meeting. "But there are very few ways to stop a bullet. Our job is to send officers into harm's way and this is one of the very few ways to do it."
Celaya cited an "uptick" of university campus shootings over the last 10 years that justifies the need.
"For us, I think there is the real potential," Celaya said. "In the last 10 years there's been about 28 shootings on public campuses and about 40 over the last 20 years. Heaven forbid people get hurt and they are trapped and you don't have the coverage from gunfire and they may be hidden. You have to make a decision. How do you rescue them, how do you evacuate them?"
Celaya said it would not be used for crowd control during campus demonstrations, "but if people are firing guns, we might consider it."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408.