The Politics of Fear

Bearcat stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Truck.

Birdie Hall  |   Friday Oct. 31st, 2014

American hero Mark Twain commented many years ago on the absurdity of our public servants’ behavior. “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” After a six-hour city council meeting I attended nearly a month ago, members of the community and I are asking the same thing. We elected a panel of people who not only acted disrespectfully towards an outcry of public concern, but also allowed flagrant disregard against the policies they are employed to keep in place. For those of you who missed the extensive coverage surrounding the Bearcat fiasco, allow me to simplify some things and evaluate accordingly. Last October (over a year ago), the Bozeman police department applied for a $250,000 Homeland Security grant without approval from the city commission. According to Bozeman city policy, any local organization seeking a grant over 10K (including obtainment of everything from leaf-blowers to garbage trucks) must first be city-approved. The Bozeman Police Department did not follow the rules of the city commission, nor did they tell anyone on the council (save Chris Kukulski, city manager who signed the grant) about a free $250,000 armored tank. Less than a week after applying for this game-changing award, the grant was approved!      
In May 2014 our police force received their Lenco Bearcat, unbeknownst to the community. How did this happen? Two contributing factors: None of the commissioners were informed, and the vehicle was only transported at night. Police Chief Ron Price claimed that the whole situation spurned from an “error in paperwork”, denying any bad intentions. Price added that before a public unveiling, the department intended to put the “Rescue” stickers on the vehicle so as not to frighten people. Until local news networks leaked the story more than three months later, virtually no one was aware of the massive purchase. On October 6th, 2014 city commissioners were met with a small crowd of disgruntled citizens and the problem of dealing with a seedily obtained paramilitary vehicle.

Despite the staggering number of issues brought to the table by a significant amount of people, a petition with over a thousand signatures against the Lenco Bearcat, and a bumbling police force, our city leaders voted 4-1 for ratifying what is essentially a small tank into our community. It was quite frankly a shameful display of idiocy and disregard for public policy and the public itself.       
Before the meeting I stopped to take part in the last-minute public unveiling of the Bearcat. Nestled snugly in the Fire Station 1 parking lot at 5pm, I spent a few minutes contemplating the slightly grotesque sight in front of me. Two photographers snapped pictures from different angles; officers stood jovially waiting to answer any questions we might have. The vehicle itself was quite frankly a disappointment from the Lenco promotional video that many others and I have watched on the Internet. I didn’t see a giant military tank crushing houses with a battering ram or multiple canisters of CS gas spraying victoriously, there weren’t even any machine guns ready to spray ammo on passers-by. Just a giant black truck with empty gun ports and large white printed words on the front: POLICE, and RESCUE. I spoke with Officer Stratman in regards to the spectacle in front of me. He informed me that the inside of the monstrous truck is only six square feet. “I bet I could fit twenty kids in there”. Maybe, if we stack them like sardines on a scenic field trip to Museum of the Rockies. What I somehow failed to understand was that the main purpose of the vehicle was for “negotiating hostage situations” and “moving people” from dangerous events. According to the Bozeman Police Department, the vehicle would never be used for crowd control or drug raids. I was reminded this several times as I questioned multiple officers. After the obvious evidence of evading policy and the public, however, I was not convinced. “I don’t look at it (the Bearcat) for us”, Stratman said, “but for the community.” It’s a community asset. I decided to prod a bit more. “So if the Bozeman community came together and decided they don’t want this, what would you do?” According to Officer Stratman, the police force would “evaluate based upon whether we need it to protect the community”. Didn’t the police already evaluate this with their Notice of Intent? The lack of transparency displayed by our law enforcement officers was making itself more apparent.      
Fast forward six hours later. It’s 11pm and only about forty remain after the intense first round of public comment and lukewarm interrogation of police chief Ron Price. Earlier, over one hundred citizens packed themselves into city hall, most of them speaking against the vehicle. It was possibly the most impressive display of peaceful assembly I’ve ever seen. Citizens of every class and political background came together, setting their differences aside in solidarity for recognizing the decaying infrastructure of American civil liberties. Dozens of people spoke against the Bearcat, save the few testimonies of police and their wives, about four firefighters, two paramedics, and a well intentioned retired military vet. Those defending the Bearcat spoke exclusively in terms of rescuing children and protecting police against lone gunmen. Butte resident Jerry Williams, who holds a head position in the Montana Police Protection Agency, made his pleas to keep the vehicle loud and clear. He assured the entire audience that it was just “a matter of time” (he guaranteed) before the police would need the vehicle, and that when his neighbor starts shooting high-powered ammo (I’m not making this up) at him, the Bearcat would come aid in his evacuation. It sounds like what Mr. Williams really needs is new neighbors. County attorney Marty Lambert passed around terrifying security photos of police attempting to stop an insane man locked in a Belgrade storage unit from huffing paint and shooting people. I’m not kidding. This is what the Bearcat could prevent, and by choosing to send it back, we would be endangering the lives of our police officers. Another policeman said the Bearcat had already assisted officers in decompressing a shooting situation: The local SRT Police team allegedly pulled up to a window, blocking the shooter’s sight. In all honesty, these testimonies came off as inconsistent and suspiciously absurd. The logistics of the BPD’s arguments (once more) were not adding up.                          
After every last remaining comment was squeezed from our exhausted public, the commissioners spoke openly before giving their vote. Carson Taylor attempted to comfort us, saying that the Bearcat is not “the most dangerous tool they have”. That just scared me. We were assured of his extensive research of Police Militarization and how he consulted the New York Times and even the ACLU, but the Bozeman’s police department’s acquisition is somehow separate from the obvious trend of America’s expanding militarization. “It is what it is”, he said before proposing that our city keep the vehicle but require a follow-up meeting next year to discuss when, where, and how the vehicle had been used. Commissioner Chris Mehl spoke next. “Man, we really screwed up”, moving on to call the meeting “democracy at the last second”, backing Taylor’s proposal but adding a provision that the BPD should inform the city of any changes that might be made to the vehicle (like ordering a battering ram or CS canisters). He left the public with many endearing sound-bytes. “Life is about trade offs”, and “life is complicated”. Although his comments came off as fabulously patronizing towards the concerned community, he reminded the exhausted audience that the commissioners need to cherish our trust, but if we are discontent, we have every power to “un re-elect” our leaders. Halfway through the commissioners’ statements, the room turned into a scene out of a surrealist comedy or brutal satire. You choose. I-Ho Pomeroy, earlier in tears from the stories of the police and their concerned wives, voted for the vehicle’s ratification. She claimed that these emotional testimonies had changed her mind on the sinister nature of the Bearcat. She went on to defend Chris Kukulski, who signed the grant without approval from commission. “He takes full responsibility for his mistakes, he said he was sorry.” As if to add insult to injury, commissioner Cynthia Andrus added the final straw of a vote to break every citizen camel’s back: “I see it (the Bearcat) full of children”, and that we need not worry: Bozeman is not subject to large gatherings of angry citizens like Ferguson, Missouri. Not yet, it isn’t.    
Only Mayor Jeff Krauss spoke with transparency, recognizing that the police’s delayed revelation of the Bearcat was more than just an error in paperwork, and the stifling need to keep integrity in representative government. Mayor Krauss was the only commissioner who fully acknowledged the “escalation of rhetoric” put forward by the police department, such as the grant’s explicit notice of intent: to protect against threats of “environmental groups, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and religious and racial hate groups”. Not a single policeman spoke of such an absurd situation, using only examples of a lone gunman, school shootings, and hostage situations to convey the need for a military vehicle in our town. He also reminded everyone of the city’s recent million dollar purchase of a new fire truck, which was met with a large public unveiling. Five officials were called together to represent the public and make a decision on the Bearcat’s fate. They failed miserably. I was not the only one angry and disappointed in Bozeman’s elected officials. We were lied to, no one in charge was held accountable for violating policy, and now we have a military-grade police truck that looks suspiciously like a tank.

So what’s the problem with the Bearcat? From the outward appearance of the vehicle, it’s just a gargantuan black rescue truck. The reality, though, is that it’s not really a rescue vehicle at all. The acronym Bearcat stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Truck. Nowhere in the title is “rescue” mentioned, and a sticker emblazoning the made up title on the front of our Lenco monstrosity does not change the facts. The ports for machine guns and CS gas canisters are still there, and attaining a battering ram is one phone call away. It’s not even the vehicle itself that is truly the problem; it’s only a symptom. The social epidemic of Police militarization and brutality is sweeping the country at a terrifying pace. It has been since the ratification of “The Patriot Act” in 2001, signed in by George W Bush after the attacks on 9/11. An Orwellian display of power, the act was passed with the intent of “providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism”. Our country fights war with war, and the war has escalated to the degree of effecting all of us. Although this is not the time or place for in-depth analysis of federal policy, the consequences of The Patriot Act have proven dire by violating constitutional rights, inciting fear and harassment against anyone who might be misconstrued as distrustful or against this country. The two officers in charge of applying for the Homeland Security grant both share long ties with the military. I’m not bringing this up to infer a lurking governmental conspiracy to take over our town, but this does seem eerily coincidental of systematic desensitization in regards to our attitude for tools of war and violence. There should be absolutely no spillover of military tactics or weapons in our police force. These former-military policemen fought to keep military actions from taking place on American soil and to protect us from terrorists, not make us into them. The weapons being distributed at alarming paces are instruments of fear. Those who spoke in defense of the vehicle argued worst-case scenarios, tales of drug-addicted gunmen, and the emotional plights of wives and children. These are non-constructive arguments that feed off fear and lack of situational awareness in regards to how social structures function.    
It is a frightening time in American history when our civil liberties are disregarded and city officials take no responsibility for violation of government policy and public opinion. Fear has been used against us, and will continue to be until enough people stand firmly against misconduct and dishonesty. I will end on a piece of advice given to me by my grandfather when I was five years old, “if it looks like crap, if it smells like crap, it’s probably crap”. If we take this small gem of logic to heart, it’s clear that the Bozeman police department and our commissioners have fed us a load of crap. So what are we going to do about it?   

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