Last Wednesday, as reported first by KBZK, the public learned that the City of Bozeman has acquired, somewhat reclusively, a new “military-style” vehicle. Called a BearCat and costing nearly a quarter-million dollars, the new Bozeman Police Department vehicle appears like a cross between a Humvee and those armored trucks commonly associated with banks.
While both the reporter and the interviewee, Bozeman Police Captain Steve Crawford, attempted multiple times to parlay the BearCat as a “rescue” vehicle, given the matte black paintjob, numerous shooting portals, and generally wolfish appearance, imagining a broader mission for the City’s new acquisition is no stretch. At the onset of Monday night’s public proceedings, even the City Manager stumbled momentarily as he shoehorned the modifier “rescue” into his introduction of the armored vehicle.
Also present at last night’s “special presentation” for the City Commission, Police Chief Ron Price was perhaps more forthright when he said, “(The Bearcat) is designed specifically for law enforcement, and for the specific use of our special response team.” A special response team should be regarded as a new colloquial term for SWAT, an acronym for “Special Weapons And Tactics.” Such law enforcement units are often equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades (according to Wikipedia).
The manufacturer of the BearCat, Lenco, describes their best-selling truck as a "military counter-attack" vehicle often utilized in "hostile Urban Environments" and may be upgraded with their "optional Mechanical Rotating Turret with Cupola (Tub) and Weapon Ready Mounting System, suitable for the M60, 240B and Mark 19 weapons systems."
Since the August shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a fortnight of violent altercations between police and citizens in the St. Louis suburb, Main Street Americans have grown alarmed by the militarization of this nation’s police force, a public dialogue fueled in part by images from Ferguson and new reports of police brutality from across the country that arise seemingly every week.
A BearCat on patrol in Ferguson, Mo., last month.
As the presentation last night made clear, five municipalities in Montana have vehicles like Bozeman’s new BearCat, including Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell, Helena, and Missoula. Chief Price and Mr. Kukulski took several opportunities to stress that the armored BearCat fits a regional gap for such a vehicle, offering a range of protection that extends to Yellowstone National Park and Meagher County.
Still, concerned citizens in Bozeman and beyond might see it as local evidence of the national problem. Just last week, U.S. Senators from both parties decried from Washington the fierce armaments now in favor of America’s police forces.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said, “Giving military-grade weapons to every police force and every officer comes with costs. Officers dressed in military fatigues will not be viewed as partners in any community."
Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also went on the record last week, stating, “It's hard to see a difference between the militarized and increasingly federalized police force we see in towns across America today and the force that Madison had in mind when he said 'a standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be a safe companion to liberty,' " with a reference to one of America’s founding fathers.
Perhaps as concerning is that this vehicle was acquired without notification of the public, including Bozeman’s own elected officials. Funding for the BearCat was delivered via a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and as such, was not a traceable item in the City’s general fund. Furthermore, the BearCat’s acquisition was not listed in the most recent Capital Improvement Plan, where elected officials, the media, and members of the public might generally expect to find such documentation.
Offering background last night, City Manager Chris Kukulski stated for the record that he signed the grant award in October of 2013. Kukulski further reported that the City of Bozeman took possession of the vehicle—which cost $248,537—in May of this year. Describing his actions as both a “mistake” and a “gaffe,” Kukulski stated that while one commissioner was informally made aware of the BearCat, the city manager failed to bring its acquistion to the full attention of the five-person commission. Even though his contractual signature on behalf of the City is, under normal circumstances, approved in advance or ratified afterwards by our elected representatives, Kukulski stated in summary, “I just missed talking to all of you about it.”