Oakland police commission moves toward retiring controversial Bearcat

The Oakland Police Commission is moving to get the police department to retire its Bearcat and not replace it with any other militarized vehicle.

At a police commission meeting last week, newly appointed Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said that the department is already looking to find an alternative to using the Bearcat, which would be less militarized and "look a lot different."

Alternatives could mean using the department's armored Suburban SUV, which can protect officers from bullets but does not have the symbolic military-feel of a Bearcat. However, no specifics on what these alternatives would actually mean and when the Bearcat will actually be retired were actually determined. 

"I'd like to see OPD use an alternative vehicle in the future," Commissioner Henry Gage said at the meeting. 

The news about the Bearcat's proposed retirement comes as good news to about 350 people who signed a petition on Feb. 11, requesting that the police commission get rid of the armored personnel carrier designed for military and law enforcement use.

Police like the vehicle because the armor can protect them from bullets in high-risk situations. Many community groups, however, say the symbol of the Army-style Bearcat rolling down their streets is traumatizing, especially for people of color, giving them the sense that they are living in "occupied territory." This debate has only intensified after the death of George Floyd. 

"The streets of Oakland are not a combat field," the group wrote. "Use of a military-style truck is not a proportional response to residential emergencies. The BearCat’s presence strikes fear in the hearts of adults and children who experience it in operation. It triggers trauma for Black and brown folks who live in the neighborhoods where it is most frequently used."

Some of the groups who signed the letter include: Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, American Friends Service Committee, Anti-Police Terror Project, BAY-Peace: Better Alternatives for Youth Coalition for Police Accountability and the CodePink Women for Peace. 

The Bearcat has long been under scrutiny by many civil rights activists. But its use came to a head in 2018 when it was used as a perch for police to stand on and kill Joshua Pawlik, who had fallen asleep with a gun in his hand in front of an Oakland home. But the bigger question from critics is: Why was it pulled out in the first place? 


The fallout from Pawlik's death also meant that five officers were fired and Oakland paid $1.4 million to his family. Oakland has since been required by a federal court to create a new policy for armored vehicles. 

While activists say they are cautiously optimistic that the Bearcat will be retired, they are also skeptical of the commission's approval of a new training policy, which allows OPD to borrow a Bearcat from other agencies, such as San Leandro police. Commissioner David Jordan said the commission would revisit this issue at a later date. 

"If the city gets rid of its Bearcat but a borrowed one still shows up regularly in East Oakland, I think many people will feel deceived and under siege," said John Lindsay-Poland of American Friends Service Committee.

The policy also still allows the use of the Bearcat if there is "reasonable suspicion" of firearms use, which the civil rights activists still say is "a very low standard."

In July 2019, KTVU asked Oakland police to provide information on how often the Bearcat was used and found that the department didn't track such information. 

At the request of KTVU and the American Friends Service Committee, Oakland police provided some more information by February 2020, which showed police deployed the Bearcat about seven times a month - or nearly twice a week - in predominantly East Oakland neighborhoods, and rarely in the affluent hills.

To compare, the KTVU analysis showed that San Francisco police deployed the Bearcat on average less than twice a month during 2019, records from that city show. 

Still, KTVU requested even more information as the data provided by Oakland police did not drill down into the narratives as to why the Bearcat was specifically deployed.

That public records request from a year ago is still outstanding. 

The civil rights activists say now is the time to be more transparent and focus on new, more creative policing methods. 

"Oakland is currently reimagining how to achieve public safety for all residents," the group wrote."Although there is much we don't agree on, we are unified that militarizing police has not made us safer and that removing the tank-like BearCat from Oakland is a necessary step."

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez