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Civil Liberties Union questions increasing use of costly military-style equipment by NH law enforcement

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 27. 2013 10:35PM
The Manchester Police Department's BearCat. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)
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Concord is poised to accept $258,000 in federal funding to buy an armored vehicle that police say would provide protection for officers and civilians alike during a terrorist attack, riot or shooting incident.

But some - notably the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union - are questioning the increasing use of what they call "militarized" equipment by civilian police forces.

Concord's City Council will hold a public hearing on Aug. 12 about the proposed purchase of a BearCat G3 rescue vehicle, paid for entirely by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The police department applied for the grant on behalf of the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit, which includes 20 local communities, Merrimack County Sheriff's Office and Plymouth State University. The SOU has an "early 80s-vintage" Peacekeeper armored vehicle, but it needs to be repaired "constantly," Concord Police Chief John Duval said.

Concord's City Council unanimously approved the grant application for a new BearCat last fall, according to Duval. But in the months since, some have raised concerns about just how and when such a vehicle would be used.

Duval said he understands concerns about government overreach, especially in light of recent revelations about government surveillance of telephone and email records. But he said those questions need to be asked "in context."

Built on a Ford chassis, the BearCat, Duval said, is "an armor-plated box on wheels."

"That's all it is. It is not digital communication, it's not a listening device, it's not weaponry, it's not any of those things.

"Every year," Duval said, "police officers are lost in the line of duty protecting the rights of citizens. Tactical response units go into known lethal, hostile situations.

"And this vehicle is simply a vehicle to remove people who may be in harm's way, remove injured parties and bring police officers in closer."

But Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said the national ACLU is concerned about the "militarization" of police departments across the country.

The ACLU has submitted more than 255 requests for information to law enforcement agencies across the country regarding the use of "counter-terrorism tactics and of military equipment," she said.

The NHCLU has sought such records from police in Concord, Derry, Keene, Manchester and Portsmouth, Chaffee said. "What we're trying to do is really shed light on what is happening with regard to the increased use of militarized tactics and equipment by domestic police," she said. "Because we think that the public has a right to know."

And what she got back from Concord only increased her concern, Chaffee said.

In its grant application to DHS, the police department said New Hampshire's experience with terrorism "slants primarily towards the domestic type," and said "the threat is real and here."

"Groups such as the Sovereign Citizens, Free Staters and Occupy New Hampshire are active and present daily challenges," the application stated. In addition to organized groups, it cited "several homegrown clusters that are anti-government and pose problems for law enforcement agencies."

Chaffee called that language "alarming."

"It's far from clear to us why an armored vehicle would be necessary to address what are generally, by and large, non-violent movements that in fact provide little or no threat to the security of our state," she said.

Duval said it's not so much organized groups that concern police.

"It's in those cases where things escalate for whatever reason by fringe people who attach themselves to these groups, because of the topic that is being expressed, that it becomes a catalyst for a lethal situation.

"We have to be prepared to protect our law-abiding citizens," he said. "And that's our core function, to protect life and property."

Chaffee said she's concerned that "having militarized equipment and using militarized tactics will result in escalation of violence."

And she asked, "Is this vehicle really going to be limited to those extreme circumstances that have been cited by the Concord police?"

Duval takes issue with the description of the BearCat as a "militarized" vehicle. It has no weapons or offensive equipment, he said; he likens it to the Kevlar vests that police officers wear to protect themselves.

He cited a shooting incident in upstate New York last December in which police used a BearCat to safely remove 30 residents from a neighborhood under fire.

"The essential function of this vehicle is to deploy people safely and to remove people, possibly, safely from a lethal situation."

Lt. Mark Sanclemente is assistant commander of the Manchester SWAT team, which has had a BearCat since 2007.

"We use it as a protective vehicle," he said. "It protects our officers, it's there to protect the public."

Sanclemente said the vehicle has been used when police serve drug search warrants or respond to incidents involving weapons; it's also gone to surrounding towns when police request assistance.

And the SWAT team took it to Watertown, Mass., last April to assist in the search for the accused Boston Marathon bomber.

"It doesn't get out every day. It's very, very limited," he said. "It's a personnel carrier, and it gives us an option to keep our officers safe."

Sanclemente noted that Manchester's BearCat also is parked in a "low-profile location" during political events such as presidential appearances. "It's nearby, it's not out so that everyone can see it, but it's still close if it's needed."

He said he thinks most people understand why the BearCat would be needed in certain situations. "I think the majority of the public likes knowing that we have that vehicle as an option. It's there to protect the community, and that's all it is."

But Chaffee said the presence of such equipment has a negative effect on the communities in which they're used. "You see that type of vehicle operating in your community, and it has a real impact on the sense of security," she said.

"That's part of why there needs to be real careful consideration of how this equipment is used."

Duval said there are legitimate questions about the appropriate use of SWAT teams.

"As a police chief, I don't want our citizens to feel that their police department is becoming a quasi-military unit," he said. "We pride ourselves on community policing."

But he said, "The reality of it is, unfortunately, we have an increasing amount of lethal situations that without the appropriate assets, law enforcement is at a disadvantage to protect our citizens."

Duval said he also understands questions about spending taxpayer money on such vehicles, which might only be used a few times.

But he noted Concord's BearCat would be available to assist any police agency that requests it. "And to me, that is a level of security for this state that is money very, very well-spent," he said.

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