Thursday, January 8, 2015

San Leandro to discuss militarization of its police department

The Lenco Bearcat MedEvac is really a
heavily-fortified Ford F-550.
SAN LEANDRO | When it comes to armored personnel carriers, San Leandro is one of few East Bay jurisdictions without the controversial vehicles, which some opponents charge overtly militarizes small local police departments like San Leandro. The city submitted a joint state grant last fall to fund the costs of the vehicle known as a Lenco Bearcat MedEvac, along with the Alameda County Fire Department and Fremont Police and Fire.

A version of the Lenco Bearcat will be on display Thursday afternoon at 5 p.m. and precedes a 6 p.m. public meeting (San Leandro Senior Community Center, 13909 East 14th Street) on the efficacy of purchasing the armored carrier. The direct expenditure of the vehicle would be split among the three jurisdiction at a cost of about $33,000 apiece, the city says.

Knowledge of the grant was not well-know until some San Leandro privacy activists noted the police department's plans for the vehicle used for a host of dangerous law enforcement situations including SWAT, serving warrants and confronting alleged criminals deemed armed and dangerous.

The San Leandro PD, though, says the armored vehicle will be mostly deployed in medical emergencies and will be the first use of its kind in the East Bay. However, the police department has some familiarity with similar models of the armored carrier.

Since 2012, San Leandro PD has borrowed armored vehicles from neighboring cities on 10 separate occasions. A majority of the operations used armored vehicles from the Hayward Police Department, along with law enforcement agencies in Alameda, Union City and Fairfield, according the San Leandro PD. But, none of the stated uses included a medical-type emergency. Nearly every instance was described either as  a "high-risk warrant service" or "barricaded subjects."

The Lenco Bearcat MedEvac, which is basically an armored Ford F-550, has been on loan to the city from the manufacturer since late November. The then-mayor Stephen Cassidy noted in a press release, "The BearCat MedEvac will not be used in any rescue or law enforcement capacity by our police department or any other public agency during the loan period.”

In addition, the potential purchase of the armored vehicle is not military surplus, the city says, nor is is a military personnel carrier distributed through the U.S. Department of Defense.

Critics, though, worry the slow merging of the nation's perpetual war effort with local police departments will have a chilling affect on privacy and human rights down the line. Furthermore, defense contractors are a powerful lobby interested in cultivating new customers as the war effort winds down. For instance, the promotional video for the Lenco Bearcat, first noted by East Bay Express contributor Darwin BondGraham, highlights an over-the-top macho tone.

Among the members of the San Leandro City Council, few have taken a clear stance on the armored vehicle. Although, it was  a campaign issue during the most recent election, most public officials have questioned whether the vehicle is appropriate for a quiet suburban city like San Leandro, while also offering deference to Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli, who backs the purchase.

This week, newly-elected Councilmember Deborah Cox urged residents to take a look at the armored vehicle for themselves while suggesting it was less imposing than what critics describe.


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