The Police Department and Port of Redwood City were given the go-ahead by councilmembers to purchase an armored rescue vehicle largely through a federal grant.
While the officials argue the new equipment is intended to keep the public safe in case of an emergency, some community members assert the vehicle could inspire fear.
Because of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security and the FEMA Port Security Grant Program, the Port of Redwood City is in position to purchase a $350,000 armored rescue vehicle. The grant would cover 75% of the cost. The port will cover the remainder and the police department would pay for the annual maintenance costing about $2,500.
Port Executive Director Kristine Zortman said the port qualified for the grant after being designated the federal staging area for the South San Francisco Bay region in 2014 by FEMA. The designation makes the port, the only deep-water port in the south Bay Area, a “critical hub” in cases of emergency and was granted after substantial improvements to it, Zortman said.
Beyond its use for the port, which would store the ARV, the vehicle would serve an important — though hopefully sparing — role in the police department, Capt. Ashley Osborne said during Monday’s council meeting.
During winter storms such as the ones experienced earlier this year, Osborne said the ARV could help officers make contact with residents in flooded areas unreachable with standard department vehicles. The ARV would help keep officers safe during potential negotiation situations, active shooter response and when serving high-risk warrants but would not be equipped with firearms or any form of offensive or defensive weapons, he noted.
Response times to emergencies in which the vehicle would be needed would also be improved, Osborne said, noting that the department currently has to seek approval to use a similar ARV currently owned by the Sheriff’s Office.
“We understand that an armored rescue vehicle is a sensitive subject within the community,” Osborne said. “It’s not a tank, it’s not designed for military use and it’s not weaponized.”
The purchase was proposed to the council as part of the police department’s annual Military Equipment Use Report update, a mandated report under Assembly Bill 481, state legislation that took effect last January and requires police departments to disclose what type and the amount of “military grade” equipment they have in their possession.
According to the most recent report, the department owns equipment in 14 different categories including a variety of rifles, tactical robots, pepperball launchers, defense technology and ammunition. New equipment acquisition and maintenance cost the department about $35,000 and another roughly $25,000 is expected to be spent in the next 12 months. The department’s budget in total is about $52 million or 31.5% of the city’s overall general fund budget expenditures.
“This Annual Military Equipment Use Report is intended to not only adhere to the law and Redwood City Police Department policy, but also demonstrate our commitment to transparency with the information provided to our community and elected officials,” according to the report. “Understanding law enforcement is a partnership between the police and community, we will continue to serve and do all we can to guard against harmful actions of a few individuals, providing our community with ‘Excellent Service with Integrity and Respect.’”
Community and council concerns
Councilmember Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, the lone vote against approving the item, said their main concern was about how the equipment would be used. They shared similar concerns when reviewing the same report last year and was also in the minority voting against approving that report.
After noting the city does not keep demographic data with who the SWAT team interacts, Espinoza-Garnica said national data indicate communities of color are most often affected by swat operations.
“The topic of SWAT isn’t an easy one and I think has a lot of historical implication to the use and how it’s been built up,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “I would like to have brought to council a decision on use of force, I think it goes hand in hand with this and the policy that guides us.”
Community members also expressed concerns. Some disputed claims the equipment wasn’t military grade and noting the city in recent years agreed to return a similar armored military vehicle given to the Police Department by the federal government.
“Call it a rescue vehicle if you wish but no one is fooled, it is a military assault vehicle,” said Pat Willard, a founding member of the Peninsula Anti-Racism Coalition.
Clara Jaeckel, a member of the Police Advisory Committee who spoke only as a resident, first encouraged the council to not allow the purchase but, if they did move ahead with buying the ARV, she suggested they also formally take a stance that the vehicle wouldn’t be used against protestors.
But many more community members including members of the police department spoke in favor of the city owning the ARV during the meeting. They argued that the vehicle could help the department keep the community safe during severe storms and officers respond swiftly and safely during tense and potentially violent situations.
Ultimately, the council agreed that having the ARV in the city’s stock of equipment would be for the best and voted 6-1 to permit the purchase. They also signaled an interest in having the department share updates on its use-of-force policy with the Police Advisory Commission.
Reflecting on the military equipment report as a whole, Mayor Jeff Gee said the city had a modest amount of military grade equipment compared to other jurisdictions. And, like Zortman, councilmembers Alicia Aguirre and Diane Howard noted the city’s location in the county and responsibilities bestowed upon it by the federal government make it imperative that the city is prepared to respond to emergencies.
“I’m glad we have the deep water port, I’m glad that we’re in the position we’re in that we can do this for the rest of the Bay Area. But it comes with huge responsibility and I think arming ourselves and preparing ourselves not only with effective training but proper tools is the only way that we hope to succeed in a crisis situation or an emergency situation,” Howard said. “Proper training will prevent mistakes and I think this equipment is needed.”
Sounds like folks opposing the acquisition of the rescue vehicle are choosing sloganeering over safety.
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