Sunday, November 27, 2022

Brunswick County is buying an armored police vehicle with Covid money

Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

BOLIVIA — A 17,500-pound armored vehicle purchase quietly rolled through a vote at Monday’s Brunswick County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The board signed off on spending $330,000 of its $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the purchase  —  dubbed an “armored rapid response vehicle” for the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office.

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The buy, along with accepting a grant so the sheriff’s office can create its own traffic unit, were originally slated for discussion during the meeting. Commissioner Pat Sykes asked the agenda items be moved to the consent agenda to be voted on as a block with other items deemed noncontroversial by the board.

But at least one Brunswick resident disagreed after commissioners signed off on the change and passed the items before the meeting’s public comment period began.

Denise Donnelly attended the meeting primarily to speak out against the purchase. She stood up during the allotted time to question its necessity.

“I’m in support of the sheriff’s department and their budget, but I feel like militarization is a little bit far,” Donnelly said.

She added there are “good things” ARPA is funding, though she didn’t specify what.

ARPA funds are supposed to assuage the negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, such as padding pay for essential workers or investing in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Chairman Randy Thompson responded that the purchase was already discussed when commissioners outlined how to spend its ARPA money in the spring.

The priority list approved in May shows the project as a “Pitbull Vehicle” specifically for evacuation and recovery purposes that can be “deployed during emergencies.”

PCD requested comments from Brunswick commissioners on why they supported the project. Only Frank Williams responded.

“Public safety is one of local government’s most important responsibilities,” he said. “Not only will this vehicle be critical in emergency response efforts after hurricanes, it will protect the brave men and women who risk their lives to keep our communities safe.”

Brunswick County Sheriff’s did not answer what the vehicle will be used for — such as SWAT operations —or if the office owned armored vehicles in the past. Nor did it address exactly what equipment it will place on the vehicle.

Instead, spokesperson Emily Flax wrote in an email to PCD:

“We are grateful to the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners for their support in acquiring additional resources that will be used to protect the citizens of our county. The rapid response vehicle will be used in a myriad of ways including transporting people to safety following hurricanes or other catastrophic events.”

The purpose of the request provided to the board described in further detail some of its functions. Additional uses include responding to threats, serving search warrants, doing welfare checks, pursuing  tips on wanted suspects and responding to “swatting” calls with tactical teams.

To be precise, the county is buying a Lenco Armored Vehicles BearCat. Lenco’s tagline is “Protecting Our Nation’s Defenders.” The company markets the vehicle to SWAT teams, rescue squads, private security and the military. They are heavy duty trucks equipped with armor that can resist .50 calibre bullets.

The base cost of a BearCat is $200,000, and Brunswick is adding $130,000 worth of upgrades to its unit, including a 6.7-liter turbo diesel engine, a 4-wheel off-road package, spotlights, a front-mounted ram with a camera attached, an intercom system, a vertical gunport to place weapons through and air conditioning. It will be painted “lusterless black.”

Lenco’s website says the vehicles save lives and police trade publications defend armored vehicles.

However, a 2020 peer-reviewed study published in Nature’s “Human Behavior” paints a different picture: There is no correlation between military equipment, including armored vehicles, and crime -reduction. The study specifically addresses a Trump-era program to transfer surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. At least two local agencies have picked up armored vehicles for free as a result.

WECT reported Wilmington Police Department acquired two armored vehicles on loan from the Department of Defense in 2019, with the main purpose of being used as rescue vehicles. When PCD asked the department to describe how the vehicles have been utilized, a spokesperson said it would require a public records request.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office was more forthcoming. Spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said the office was donated a mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicle and purchased a pair of non-military, six-wheeled rescue vehicles in 2019. The equipment was acquired so the department could be better prepared in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

“We were going way up into Pender County, helping them out, saving people, and there were places we couldn’t get our boats to,” Brewer said.

He added the rescue-specific vehicles are particularly useful because deputies can take them “anywhere,” and the office trains by purposely getting the trucks stuck and trying to free them.

The armored vehicle is technically multipurpose. Brewer recalled personally cutting trees that had fallen on a roadway in Northchase after a smaller storm and pushing logs out of the road.

The office does not track every time the vehicle is used, but Brewer said up to this point the armored vehicle has not been used by a SWAT team.

“It can be utilized for that, and I know that they have trained using it as of this point, but hopefully we will never have to,” he said.

The study published in Nature notes, while it focuses on the effects of militarization on crime rates, the results call into question claims military equipment have no ill effects on citizen perception of police.

Brewer claimed society has dictated police use of military equipment, pointing to mass violence in America like school shootings. As a local example, he noted the discovery of a collection of pipe bombs in Monkey Junction in 2013.

“They don’t like it until they need it,” Brewer said, referring to public outcry.


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