July 27. 2013 7:20PM

Keene councilman says $285,933 BearCat courtesy of Uncle Sam 'a waste of money'

New Hampshire Union Leader
Union Leader Correspondent

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The official who in 2011 opposed purchasing an armored truck for the Keene Police Department still thinks it was a waste of money, but agencies with similar vehicles are happy to have them.

The Lenco BearCat - short for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck - stirred controversy when Keene accepted a $285,933 federal Homeland Security grant to purchase it last year. In addition to cost, worries included the potential for police misuse of the 19,000-pound vehicle.

As a condition of the purchase, Keene police were required to report how the BearCat was used in its first six months since it was delivered in November 2012. According to the report, the BearCat was used 21 times: for 19 training exercises, one report of a suicidal person and one report of barricaded person. It was also displayed at City Safety Day.

In December 2011, Keene Ward 3 Councilor Terry Clark cast the only dissenting vote in a 12-1 decision to accept the grant.

"It's a waste of money," Clark said this month. "It was a waste of money then, and it's still a waste.

"I guess it hasn't cost us much to maintain it, but almost $300,000 for a vehicle that has been used mostly for training, on two false-alarm calls and as a nice truck on Safety Day? Our government is so cash-strapped, there are much more important things this money could be spent on."

The BearCat is an armored personnel carrier retrofitted with thick walls and glass that can stop high-caliber bullets. It can fit at least 10 police officers and is equipped with gun ports on each side and a rotating center hatch.

Besides Keene, the New Hampshire State Police, the Nashua Police Special Response Team, the Manchester Police SWAT Team, the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit based in Concord, the Southern New Hampshire Special Operations Unit in Derry and the Seacoast Advanced Response (SERT) Team in Portsmouth own similar vehicles. SERT serves 10 communities - Portsmouth, Stratham, Hampton, North Hampton, Epping, Exeter, Rye, Seabrook, Newington and Newmarket.

Nashua's BearCat and members of its Special Response Team (SRT) were dispatched to Watertown, Mass., in April to assist in search efforts for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzohkhar Tsarnaev. It was purchased in 2003 with drug forfeiture funds - money seized during drug investigations.

"We may only use it once a year, outside of training," said Nashua Police Capt. James Lima, who heads up the SRT. "But when you do need it, everyone involved is glad it's there."

An armored SWAT vehicle was also dispatched the scene of a violent shootout in Greenland in April 2012 in which Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney was killed and four other officers injured. The gunman, suspected drug dealer Cullen Mutrie, also killed his ex-girlfriend, Brittany Tibbetts, and himself in the incident.

SERT acquired its BearCat in 2005.

Portsmouth police Detective Lt. Michael Maloney, commander of SERT, said his team doesn't keep a written account of how many times the vehicle is used, saying only that it's deployed whenever the team is mobilized. He said it is deployed at least twice a month for training exercises.

"The times that it's been used, the protection it offers is invaluable," said Maloney. "We're glad to have it, and I'd say it's one of the most important pieces of equipment we have."

Keene police train for several scenarios with the BearCat, including crowd control during a riot, said Keene Police Chief Kenneth Meola. The BearCat can shield officers from glass bottles or other projectiles. Other training sessions simulated using it to help evacuate people caught in harm's way during a standoff.

Costs beyond the initial purchase have included $200 to write "Keene Police" on the BearCat, $315 to install a radio system, $154.42 for fuel costs and $49 for its state inspection. There were no maintenance costs to report.

"So, you are looking at about $200 (annually) for gas and the inspection sticker," Keene police Capt. Brian Costa said.

Keene's BearCat can be used by other town's in Cheshire County. These towns are asked to sign a pact with Keene police and pay $100 in yearly dues for maintenance costs.

When flash floods devastated Westmoreland at the beginning of July, the Keene BearCat was not deployed. Keene Mayor Kendall Lane said Westmoreland chose not to sign the pact, but if it had asked for assistance, Keene would have deployed its BearCat.

"Events like a flood, that was one of the reasons thrown around for getting the BearCat, and people aren't even thinking of asking for it," said Clark. "Again, a waste."

Mayor Lane said Keene officials are happy not to have to deploy it.

"We would be very happy if it never got used, but like a lot of pieces of equipment that the police and fire departments have, it's there, it's available if needed," Lane said.