“We’re going to have our own tank.”
That’s what Keene, N.H., Mayor Kendall Lane whispered to Councilman Mitch Greenwald during a December city council meeting.
It’s not quite a tank. But the quaint town of 23,000 — scene of just two murders since 1999 — had just accepted a $285,933 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase a Bearcat, an eight-ton armored personnel vehicle made by Lenco Industries Inc.
But those plans are on hold for now, thanks to a backlash from feisty residents. Resistance began with Mike Clark, a 27-year-old handyman. Clark, who said he’s had a couple encounters with Keene police and currently faces a charge of criminal mischief, read about the Homeland Security grant in the newspaper. “The police are already pretty brutal,” Clark said, claiming he was roughed up in both his encounters with local police. “The last thing they need is this big piece of military equipment to make them think they’re soldiers.”
Clark’s father, Terry Clark, is on the Keene City Council, and so far the only council member to publicly oppose the Bearcat. But Mike Clark said he knows how the council works. “They can pass these things without any public discussion,” Clark said. “And you don’t hear about them until they’ve already passed. But if you collect enough signatures, you can force them to reconsider the motion.” Clark did just that, collecting more than 500 signatures opposing the Bearcat.
More than 100 people packed a Feb. 9 meeting of a city council committee, nearly all to oppose equipping the police deaprtment, with about 45 sworn officers, with a Bearcat. One speaker quoted in the Keene Sentinel was Roberta Mastrogiovanni, owner of a newsstand downtown. “It promotes violence,” Mastrogiovanni said. “We should promote more human interaction rather than militarize. I refuse to use money for something this unnecessary when so many people in our community are in need.”
Since the 1990s, the Pentagon has made military equipment available to local police departments for free or at steep discounts. This, along with drug war-related policies, has spurred a trend toward a more militarized domestic police force in America. Law enforcement and elected officials have argued for years that better-armed, high-powered police departments are needed to fight the war on drugs.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror has accelerated the trend toward militarization. Homeland Security hands out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns, many specifically to buy military-grade equipment from companies like Lenco. In December, the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Homeland Security grants totalled $34 billion, and went to such unlikely terrorism targets as Fargo, N.D.; Fon du Lac, Wisc.; and Canyon County, Idaho. The report noted that because of the grants, defense contractors that long served the Pentagon exclusively have increasingly turned looked to police departments, hoping to tap a “homeland security market” expected to reach $19 billion by 2014.
Until only recently, public and press reaction to these grants and the gear purchased with them has been positive or non-existent. Most towns obtain and use the grants without much discussion or news coverage. At most, the local paper might run a supportive story touting the police department’s new acquisition, usually without controversy. But it has been different in Keene, in part because Clark and a group of libertarian activists have made the Bearcat an issue.
Jim Massery, the government sales manager for Pittsfield, Mass.-based Lenco, dismissed critics who wonder why a town with almost no crime would need a $300,000 armored truck. “I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, ‘That isn’t a likely terrorist target,’” Massery said. “How would you know? We don’ t know what the terrorists are thinking. No one predicted that terrorists would take over airplanes on Sept. 11. If a group of terrorists decide to shoot up a shopping mall in a town like Keene, wouldn’t you rather be prepared?”
Massery said Keene’s anti-Bearcat citizens deliberately mischaracterize how the vehicle would be used, and pointed to incidents he said have saved police officers’ lives. “When you see some Palestinian terrorist causing problems in Jerusalem, what do you usually see next? You see a tank with a cannon show up outside the guy’s house, and the tank blows the house to smithereens. When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator. Our trucks save lives. They save police lives. And I can’t help but think that the people who are trying to stop this just don’t think police officers’ lives are worth saving.”
Keene residents opposed to the Bearcat point to a video Lenco uses to market the vehicle to police departments. (See below.) The video doesn’t stress negotiation, but shows the vehicle being used aggressively. The video viewpoint is similar to that of a shooter role-playing game, set to the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck.” Cops dressed in camouflage tote assault weapons, pile in and out of the vehicle, and take aim at targets from around and behind the vehicle. They attach a battering ram to the front of the vehicle, break through the front door of a house, then inject tear gas. The Keene city council barred Clark from showing the video at the February committee meeting, and LENCO has since removed the video from publicly-accessible pages of its website.
“That video is totally irrelevant,” Massery said. “We used some Hollywood effects and slick marketing to promote our product. So what?”
Neither Keene Mayor Kendall Lane nor police Chief Kenneth Meola returned HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Many towns have purchased vehicles like the Bearcat, or obtained tanks or armored vehicles from the Pentagon, saying they need to be prepared for terror attacks or school shootings. When the University of North Carolina-Charlotte recently formed a SWAT team, for example, a police spokesman told the campus newspaper that the paramilitary gear and tactics were necessary to prevent another Columbine or Virginia Tech. Despite the heavy media coverage of campus shootings, they’re extremely rare. University of Virginia Professor Dewey Cornell, who studies violence prevention and school safety, has estimated that a typical school campus can expect to see a homicide about once every 12,000 years. So, since terror attacks and school shootings are rare, police agencies tend to use their armored vehicles for more mundane police work, like serving drug warrants.
“All we do is make trucks,” Massery said. “How the trucks are used after the police department gets them isn’t something we can control. You’ll have to ask the police department or city council and Keene about that.”
Much of the opposition to the Bearcat in Keene has come from Free Keene, media-savvy libertarians who moved to the town in recent years as part of the Free State Project, a coordinated campaign in which enough like-minded people move to a small state like New Hampshire to change policy and create a libertarian government. Free Staters have clashed with Keene police on several occasions since their arrival, including incidents in which activists were arrested or threatened for recording on-duty cops with cell phones and video cameras. (It is legal to record on-duty cops in New Hampshire).
Free Keene is a particularly active branch of the Free State movement. The group has staged acts of civil disobedience, ranging from the generally sympathetic (recording on-duty cops) to antics more likely to inspire eye-rolls and criticism from the town’s longtime residents, including “Topless Tuesdays” and smoke-in sessions in the town square, just across from City Hall and a local middle school.
“These people are crazy,” Massery said. “They hate cops. They hate the government. They remind me of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who take on the Red Cross. Why is anyone listening to them?”
But Clark, the Keene resident who started the petitions, isn’t a Free Stater. And while some of Free Keene’s antics have rubbed longtime Keenians the wrong way, the Bearcat seems to have united many old-timers and their newer neighbors. “This is a big topic in this small town, and I haven’t met a single person who in favor” of the Bearcat, said Dorrie O’Meara, who moved to Keene 13 years ago. O’Meara owns real estate and several businesses around Keene, including a laundromat, an apartment complex, and Pedraza’s Mexican restaurant. “Keene is a beautiful place. It’s gorgeous, and it’s safe, and we love it here. We just don’t want to live in the kind of place where there’s an armored personnel carrier parked outside of City Hall. I mean, it’s completely unnecessary. But it’s more than that. It’s just not who we are.”
Some city council members have said that because the vehicle will be paid for by a federal grant, the town would be foolish not to take it. O’Meara doesn’t buy it. “They try to say it’s ‘free.’ Well it isn’t free. Taxpayers are still paying to put this militaristic thing in our town. And it isn’t about the money, anyway. It’s about what kind of town we want to be.”
The Keene city council will take up the issue again next month. Massery predicted opposition from Keene residents will ultimately be in vain. “We have Bearcats in 90 percent of the 100 or so largest cities in America,” Massery said. “This is going to happen. It has already happened. To resist now would be like saying police officers should scrap the Glock and go back to the revolver. It’s a fantasy.”