Oakland Police Commission rejects 2nd BearCat, concern over military image, lack of deployment data

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The citizen-led Oakland Police Commission unanimously rejected a request by police to buy a second  bulletproof BearCat amid concerns that the force is relying too heavily on militarized weapons and that the money could be better spent on more community-oriented programs. 

At its June commission meeting, police argued that the BearCat is the most effective ballistic protection in the department's tool kit and is used "upwards of 150 times a year." 

But 2 Investigates discovered there is no data compiled on its deployments, so the public has no idea when the vehicle is used and for what reasons. At this news organization's request, police are now compiling data for 2019 and said they would release it as soon as it's ready.  The commissioners also asked for that information, and they and the council ordered the department to craft a BearCat policy as currently, there is none. 

"There was a whole lot of missing data," Police Commissioner Tara Anderson said in an interview. "Really helping us to understand how this tool has been utilized in the past is going to be the best information moving forward as to whether or not we continue to use the existing BearCat and any policy restricting its use." 

To compare other departments in the Bay Area, San Jose does not track the use of its BearCat deployments and San Francisco police haven't responded to a public records request filed in June. 

The BearCat Armored Tactical Vehicle is made by the Massachusetts-based Lenco, which touts on its website that it's among the most "widely trusted SWAT vehicles in North America" and used by more than 700 federal, state and local agencies. The BearCat is designed for tactical emergency medical support, bomb detection, diplomatic protection and fire response.

The debate over militarized equipment is not specific to Oakland. It's representative of an ongoing national controversy: Whether this type of gear and tools are just a flashy show of force or whether they are actually the best ways to save lives. 

In Oakland, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick believes the latter. In June, she wrote the commission explaining why the Tactical Operations Team wants a second BearCat. She said armored vehicles' capabilities "far exceed" what a patrol car can do in terms of ballistic protection and can be stocked with tools needed to drive into a critical incident. 

She said a second BearCat could be used to help block in suspect cars, would reduce the wear-and-tear on the old one which is 12 years old, and could be deployed if a second critical incident breaks out in a different location. 

At the June 27 meeting, Capt. Randall Wingate told the commissioners that the "Bearcat is the only vehicle we have that can actually stop bullets." He added that there is nothing that "even comes close" to more effectively coming in between bullets and the "flesh of officers." 

In addition to being deployed emergencies, Oakland police also say they deploy the BearCat to sporting events and community outings, in part, so they can deter threats and use in rescue situations. And at peaceful events, such as the Boy Scouts or the Polar Plunge, Kirkpatrick said the BearCat is often "well-received" by the public.

But that wasn't the case at this year's Juneteeth Festival.

Police rolled out the BearCat out at the celebration of the announcement of the abolishment of slavery, prompting fear and anger from some Black community members. "This triggered my trauma," a  community member wrote on Facebook. "Why the militarized show of force?" Betty Tyler asked. "This shows how they feel about black events in the black community," organizer Jhamel Robinson said.

"I'm troubled by the fact that the BearCat would be a PR tool," police commissioner Thomas Lloyd Smith said at the commission meeting. "It sends the wrong message. What I want to see is officers connecting with community and not around military hardware. When I hear you saying, ‘We deploy the BearCat and bring it to Warriors games and the Boy Scouts,' I think, ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong.' That's not the OPD image that we want." 

The military-gear and training debate plays out in other cities too.

In the Bay Area, progressive activists convinced the Alameda County Board of Supervisors this spring to end the controversial Urban Shield  anti-terror training exercises and weapons expo, arguing the program encouraged racial profiling and legitimized the use of assault weapons and armored vehicles by police. But the Alameda County Grand Jury criticized that move saying Urban Shield was a rare training opportunity and canceling the program makes residents "more unsafe."

However, there are studies -- and real life examples -- that show that BearCats and other types of military gear do not make anyone more safe.

Last August, Princeton University concluded that the militarization of police is ineffective in decreasing crime and protecting police and may actually weaken the public's image of police. The study also found that militarized police units are more often deployed in communities of color. 

In Oakland, a federal monitor concluded the BearCat was not used properly in March 2018.

That's when Oakland police deployed the vehicle in order to protect themselves when they learned a homeless man had fallen asleep with a gun in his lap. But when Joshua Pawlik awoke with the weapon, officers stood on the vehicle and used it as a "shooting platform" from which to shoot Pawlik to death instead of using it as a shield of armor, concluded Robert Warshaw, the department's court-appointed federal monitor.

"For me, it's not the Bearcat itself," commissioner Ginale Harris said at the meeting. "It's the people who use it. We are far away from de-escalation tactics. We used the BearCat and it got a really bad rap when Joshua Pawlik was killed. It's the decision-making that makes us very leery."

Commissioner Anderson agreed, but she also emphasized that she is not anti-law enforcement.

Her brother is a police officer and she works for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. Her rejection of the BearCat, she said, is certainly not a "reflection or a lack of concern" for police officer safety. 

It's just that she believes community leaders must be "especially thoughtful" of the tools that are used and how they look to the public. She and other commissioners also voted to require the police submit all military-weapon grant proposals to them first before they apply next time.

"Aggression meets aggression," Anderson said. "We know that law enforcement has been used as a tool of oppression for decades, since our inception as a country. My concern is that becomes the default, that it's always the tool used for fear of retaliation."