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Bill would ban communities from buying BearCat vehicles

Staff Report
February 08. 2014 9:42PM
The Keene City Council is reconsidering its acceptance of a Homeland Security grant to purchase a LENCO BearCat Special Missions armored vehicle for the police department. The move was opposed by some residents, who said it would militarize the police force. (COURTESY)

A state representative has introduced a bill that would ban communities from acquiring BearCats or similar military equipment.

State Rep. JR Hoell, R-Dunbarton, filed HB 1307 because he feels law enforcement agencies are focusing more on intimidation than on building relationships within their communities.

"Our law enforcement agencies are becoming more militarized," said Hoell. "The focus shouldn't be on getting the latest military equipment. At the end of the day, this is about answering the question of: Are we safer having this equipment? My answer to that question is no."

Specifically, the bill would amend RSA 111:8 to read, "No state agency or political subdivision of this state shall acquire, purchase, or otherwise accept for use any military-equipped vehicle or military grade hardware, including but not limited to armored personnel carriers, Title II weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, or unmanned ground vehicles, unless such military grade vehicle or hardware is readily available in an open national commercial market. The adjutant general shall notify the state attorney general of a violation of this paragraph. Any military-equipped vehicle or military grade hardware acquired in violation hereof shall be forfeited."

The National Guard would be exempt from this amendment.

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 officers and is equipped with gun ports on each side and a rotating center hatch.

Hoell said he feels funds spent on military-style equipment could have been used in better ways.

"Think about the situations we've had in New Hampshire where you would ever use one of these things," said Hoell. "We've heard how a BearCat is there to deploy to communities for a flash flood. In a case like that, an excavator would be a much better purchase for a community. In the case of Greenland, they had a BearCat there, and what happened? The chief died. There are better ways this money can be spent."

An armored SWAT vehicle was dispatched to 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.

Keene Police Chief Kenneth J. Meola gave a report on his department's armored vehicle, a Lenco BearCat, to the Keene City Council's finance, organization and personnel committee last month, explaining the vehicle's use over the past six months.

Meola said the vehicle was used 13 times between June 17 and Dec. 31 for reasons ranging from an appearance at an open house in Rindge to multiple training exercises. Over the six-month period, he said, the only funds expended on the BearCat were to cover fuel costs, a total of $183.94.

Similar vehicles are owned by 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 Team (SERT) in Portsmouth.

Hoell said he requested the bill be drafted following a vote last fall by the Concord City Council to accept a $258,000 federal grant to purchase a BearCat, after officials were presented with a petition signed by 1,500 people opposing acquisition of the vehicle, fearing it could be used against peaceful people.

The House Executive Departments and Administration Committee held a hearing on the bill Jan. 30, where Hoell said committee members expressed concerns that the bill would take away local control regarding purchases.

"Some committee members asked what role state legislators should have in telling a community how to spend its funds," said Hoell. "The role should be to provide the best law enforcement protection to citizens we can, not militarize police departments."

He said the bill would also prohibit communities from purchasing fully automatic firearms that can't be acquired on the public market.

"I'm not looking to stop anyone from picking up bulletproof vests and body armor," said Hoell.

He said the committee is unlikely to vote on the bill until later this month or in early March, and go before the House if it receives the committee's recommendation.

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