Thanks, but no tanks: citizens oppose Berkeley police plans for armored vehicle

The police departments for Berkeley, Albany, and the University of California system have partnered together to buy an armored personnel carrier (APC). Not quite a tank, the APC is a Lenco Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack Truck, better known as a BearCat. Gary Dorrington/IPS

If approved, the APC will be paid for by a $200,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). Created in 2003, UASI funds counterterrorism measures in "high-threat, high-density urban areas." From FY 2003 to 2011, over $6.5 billion was appropriated for UASI. In FY 2012, UASI had funding worth $490 million.

However, David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has criticized UASI: "Currently, there appears to be a virtual absence of independent, objective evidence indicating the effectiveness of UASI...Increased spending does not equal increased effectiveness." Daniel Borgstrom, a former US Marine now active in the Occupy movement, recently urged the Berkeley City Council to reject the APC and police militarization: “I’m asking, please stay out of this urban warfare stuff.”

Meanwhile, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan praised the BearCat, calling it "a defensive resource" necessary to protect officers from being killed. But according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks the deaths of law enforcement officials, no officers from UC Berkeley or Albany have been killed in the line of duty and only two Berkeley police officers have ever been killed by gunfire. The last Berkeley police officer killed in the line of duty was in 1973. Furthermore, as Radley Balko observes at the Huffington Post:

We're now about halfway through 2012, and this year is on pace to be the safest ever for America's police officers...Fifty officers have died on duty so far this year, a 44-percent decrease from last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). More remarkably, 17 have died from gunfire, down 55 percent from last year. (21 died in traffic accidents, the remaining 12 in various other incidents.) If the second half of this year follows the first, fewer officers will have died on duty this year than in any year since 1944, a time when there were far, far fewer police officers.

In addition, there have been significant concerns about armored vehicles' ability to violate civil liberties and increase police brutality. A spokesman for the UCPD insisted that the BearCat "is not going to be used for protests or crowd control...it’s nothing to be feared."

However, police in nearby Alameda County (which includes Oakland) used a $323,000 grant from Homeland Security to buy an APC from Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater). That APC was even used to suppress protests by the Occupy in May 2012. The Inter Press Service elaborates:

Locally, police militarisation was evident at the Nov. 9, 2011 Occupy Cal demonstration at UC Berkeley, where combat-gear clad police injured peaceful protesters with baton strikes, and on Oct. 25, 2011 in Oakland, when similarly armed police nearly killed a young former Marine when they fired a tear-gas canister that hit him in the head.

Due to mutual aid agreements, whereby law enforcement agencies can assist each other, the UCPD could share the APC with both the Berkeley and Albany police departments. The decision to renew mutual aid has previously been postponed, thanks to efforts by the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, which is advised by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

As Emily Odgers noted earlier this year, turning police into soldiers has eroded the Constitution:

This clash between Occupy protesters and police highlighted a need to stand in support of the protection of First Amendment rights. In the past ten years, there has been a decay of constitutional freedoms in America and the only way to get them back is through cooperative grassroots movements.

This is not just an issue for Occupiers or other activists; the First Amendment applies to everyone and it is necessary that the rights described within it are preserved for all, if they are to be preserved for any.

For more information about efforts to defend constitutional rights in the Bay Area, contact the BORDC organizing team.

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