BY Nicholas A. Masopust
The Norman Police Department’s attempt to acquire an armored vehicle for use in tactical situations has been met with heavy resistance locally, and Norman City Council has tabled discussion of the issue indefinitely.
The Lenco BearCat is an armored vehicle produced by Lenco Industries for use in civilian law enforcement. The BearCat is built on a 4WD Ford F-550 chassis, the same as what is used in most fire trucks and ambulances.
Norman City Council first considered an item authorizing the purchase of the BearCat at their meeting on July 28. Discussion that evening included remarks from Norman’s Chief of Police Keith Humphrey as well as from citizens speaking out on the issue. According to the minutes from that meeting, Councilman Castleberry moved that the $280,000 needed for the BearCat be appropriated from the Seizures and Restitutions Fund Balance before moving that the authorization be postponed until Aug. 25.
According to the minutes from the Aug. 25 City Council meeting, Councilmember Williams moved that the authorization for the purchase be “postponed indefinitely until such time that staff brings the item back to a future Council agenda.”
As of Dec. 2015, Norman City Council has yet to bring the item back to a vote. According to Ellen Usry, deputy city clerk for the city of Norman, the issue is still on hold and likely won’t be considered until some time in 2016.
Norman residents responded to the initial proposal by creating a community page on Facebook titled, “Keep Norman Safe,” describing the vehicle as something that leads to the “militarization” of police.
Steve Ellis, associate professor and graduate liaison for the University of Oklahoma’s department of Philosophy, spoke out against the BearCat at the July 28 city council meeting and is a regular contributor to the Facebook group.
“It influences a community’s perceptions of various kinds of danger when they see the police basically ‘buttoned up,’” Ellis said. “The BearCat strikes me as being really antithetical to community policing notions.”
Ellis’s research areas include decision theory and philosophy of the mind. Ellis has discussed the issue with the Norman Police Department on multiple occasions and argues that the BearCat would damage community policing and change the mindset of the police force.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a capacity that the BearCat gives you that could be useful under some circumstances,” Ellis said, “but expanding our ability to be more confrontational doesn’t seem to be a very productive use of our resources.”
“It’s just not a tool that we really need,” Ellis continued. “It’s hard for me to envision the kind of scenario where that would be a really key tactical piece of equipment.”
On Nov. 10, 2014, a gunman held multiple people hostage at the Nextep building off of North Interstate Drive in Norman. The standoff lasted for hours, and saw dozens of people evacuating the building with arms raised while they ran to safety.
More recently, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. killed one police officer and two civilians at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and two shooters killed fourteen people during a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
While the Norman Police Department handled the Nextep situation without an armored vehicle, Todd Gibson, Captain and SWAT Commander for the Norman Police Department, says this and other recent events are the type of “high-risk, high-liability, low-frequency” events that necessitate having a BearCat.
“In that situation we would have backed the BearCat right up to the door, loaded as many people in there as we could, and drove them to safety,” Gibson said. “That guy could shoot at the truck all he wants, those people aren’t exposed, and they’re as safe as in their mother’s arms.”
According to Gibson, the Norman Police Department turned down an opportunity in the past to purchase an MRAP, a vehicle used by the military in Afghanistan built to withstand explosive attacks and ambushes, for $2500.
“I thought it sent the wrong message,” Gibson said. “It was just overkill, and a lot more than what we needed. Something like the Bearcat is more practical, it’s more versatile, and is something specifically marketed for civilian law enforcement.”
In Oct. 2010, Howard Tod Granger fired 36 rounds from an AK-47 at police outside of his home in Tyler, Texas who were investigating him as the suspect in a murder. The bullets were unable to pierce the police force’s BearCat, and none of the officers involved in the incident were injured.
“Police cars don’t stop bullets,” Gibson said. “In the academy we train officers that their car is not cover, it is concealment. The BearCat is mobile cover, it’s protection from bullets.”
In the recent Colorado Springs shooting, police drove a BearCat through the front doors of the Planned Parenthood building, where they transported hostages out of the building and utilized the vehicle as a place of negotiation before apprehending the shooter. In San Bernardino, police used a BearCat along with other armored vehicles to box in the shooters’ vehicle during an attempted getaway.
Colorado Springs and San Bernardino are just two of the dozens of police departments around the country with access to this type of equipment. The Oklahoma City Police Department has been using a BearCat for over five years, and the Edmond Police Department acquired one last year.
According to Jennifer Wagnon, public information specialist for the Edmond Police Department, the Edmond Police Department used the vehicle during a flash flooding event, where the police department was, “able to pull a family stranded by fast moving flood waters out of the water and drive them to higher ground.” It was also used in a standoff situation at a mobile home in which police officers were, “able to puncture the wall of the trailer and get a location on our suspect without putting any of our officers in any extra danger.”
Wade Gourley, major for the Oklahoma City Police Department, says the department’s BearCat is utilized on average 12 to 15 times a year, and was met with little resistance when the PD began the process to acquire it around 2009.
“It’s not something we use on average patrol,” Gourley said. “It is only utilized when there is an extreme level of threat, when people need to be evacuated safely and officers have to be put in danger.”
On Sept. 24, 1999, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper David “Rocky” Eales was killed in the line of duty while serving a warrant in Sequoyah County. As Eales and others approached the residence in their cruiser, “a .223 caliber rifle…struck Trooper Eales in the side, just above his vest’s side panels,” according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Incidents like this in Oklahoma’s history are a “perfect example”, according to Gourley, of the purpose the BearCat serves.
“Nothing that a typical officer has on the streets is safe from that type of situation,” Gourley said. “The BearCat is.”
Gourley and the OKCPD regularly take the BearCat to school events and demonstrations in an effort to promote transparency among the community. Gourley says he is willing to talk with anyone on the Norman City Council about the issue in an effort to educate the council and the general public as much as possible.
“It’s a great investment in that it’s not something you have to buy or refurbish every five years,” Gourley said. “If this vehicle saves one life every ten years, it’s worth every penny.”