The big armored vehicle rejected by the university town of Davis after critics said it militarized the Police Department has found a home in the more blue-collar county seat of Woodland.
Woodland City Council last week approved the acquisition of the MRAP, or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle for the city’s Police Department on a 4-1 vote. The council’s decision was in sharp contrast to the scene in Davis a month ago.
There, concerns over a more militarized law enforcement led Davis council members to return the hulking armored car and the political baggage it carried on a 3-2 vote. Residents voiced opposition that stemmed from fears of clashes between armored police and street protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by an officer, as well as from the echoes of UC Davis police overreach when demonstrators were pepper-sprayed three years ago.
But in Woodland, MRAP proponents said the opportunity to pick up the armored vehicle for free through a state Office of Emergency Services-administered federal program was too good to pass up and would give police another tool to keep officers and others safe.
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Woodland police Sgt. Brett Hancock said the MRAP would be used for hostage situations and instances where there were active shooters.
“You can pick people up and move them out of harm’s way,” said Hancock. “You can also move SWAT into the scene safely. I can’t do that in my patrol car.”
“We see it as a defensive vehicle to protect officers,” Woodland Mayor Tom Stallard said. He added the MRAP is the same type used by nearby West Sacramento police and close to 40 other agencies across the state.
Davis councilman Lucas Frerichs voted in October to return its MRAP. He said Tuesday that “each individual community is going to do what’s best for their community,” but repeated the concerns that led to his “no” vote and recalled the reaction of Davis residents to news that the city’s police force had acquired a military vehicle.
“There were many hundreds of citizens who were alarmed by the acquisition, whether or not it was a needed tool, and the perception of militarization by police,” Frerichs said.
Woodland’s decision to acquire the MRAP with little apparent opposition suggests on the surface the political and philosophical differences between the county seat and college town.
But Frerichs said that was overstated.
“We have far more things in common than separate us,” Frerich said. “Our cities’ primary concern is the safety of the public. Far too often there’s an attempt to point (out) all the ways we’re not like each other, but there’s a lot more that we have in common.”
More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide have acquired equipment ranging from aircraft to office supplies to weapons through what the Defense Logistics Agency calls its “1033 Program.”
Police agencies nationwide have long been receiving heavyweight hardware under the years-old federal program that allows the Defense Department to dole out excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies for use in combating drug trafficking or other crimes.
Replacing its armored car on the open market would have cost the city about $425,000, said Woodland police.
The nearly 30-year-old vehicle that Woodland acquired from the city of Colusa in 2007 is a wreck with bad brakes, polluting emissions, and parts that are expensive and hard to find, Stallard said.
Even so, he said, the converted armored car has been used 19 times since 2007, last at a November 2013 incident in nearby Esparto.
One of those times, Stallard recalled, was during a June 2013 ride-along when Woodland police confronted a suicidal armed man in a Costco parking lot.
“It allowed officers to get close enough to assess the situation. The fact of the matter is that there are situations that have nothing to do with the militarization of police,” Stallard said. “I was in a ride-along situation. The officer was on the perimeter. All he had (for protection) was a car door.”
But some Woodlanders shared Davis residents’ concerns over how the vehicle would be used and the message it sends to residents, said Woodland Councilman Angel Barajas at last week’s meeting, the council’s sole “no” vote.
Barajas cited phone calls and emails from constituents that expressed “major concerns ... regarding the presence or the perception of the militarization of our Police Department because of the type of vehicle,” he said. Barajas wanted to see broader community discussion on how the vehicle will be used.
“A lot of the fear out there in our community is how’s it going to be used, how’s it going to be deployed, are there checks and balances in place, and why are we using this type of vehicle in our streets?” Barajas said.
Stallard said he understands residents’ concerns over the MRAP, and at the council meeting stressed that it would be used “very occasionally and in very extraordinary circumstances.”
“We understand there’s a lot of sensitivity. Woodlanders, when they hear all the facts, will realize it’s a defensive vehicle,” Stallard said Tuesday. “It’s one aspect of public safety. This embraces safety. It does not threaten it.”
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