Cops make pitch for new armored vehicle
Council questions approval process that bypassed city
Representatives of the Chico Police Department came to the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday night (Aug. 16) loaded for bear, but there was no bear to be found.
In one of the most insistent presentations and public hearings in recent memory, Chief Mike Maloney, backed up by several of his SWAT officers and Butte County Undersheriff Kory Honea, gave a detailed, PowerPoint-assisted pitch for a new armored rescue vehicle to replace the two 22-year-old, less bullet-resistant vehicles now operating in the county.
The chief even showed a three-minute video of a shootout in 2000 between officers and a mentally ill man barricaded in a house on Honey Run Road in which three officers and a civilian were pinned down for several hours.
And two members of his SWAT team challenged the council to support the purchase of the $250,000 rig. One, Todd Lefkowitz, said he didn’t want to have to tell his two young children—who trooped to the lectern with him—that the council supported “the bad guys, not the good guys.” Another SWAT officer, former Navy Seal Will Clark, stated that the new vehicle would save lives, and implied that if it wasn’t deployed and people were injured or killed as a result, council members could have blood on their hands.
Thing was, the council had no say in the matter. As Mayor Ann Schwab stated several times, “We’re not making a decision here. This is just an informational hearing.”
In fact, the decision to purchase the vehicle had been made already. It’s being funded by a grant from Homeland Security that was approved by a special group, called the Approval Authority, composed of five county public-safety leaders, including the sheriff, Chico’s fire chief and the director of the Department of Public Health.
Interestingly, the hearing was being held at the request of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose members were concerned that, besides being extremely expensive, the vehicle carried with it a risk of civil-liberties violations.
“We believe this type of decision should be made with public input rather than by a small group (the ‘Approval Authority’), which meets in private,” Leslie Johnson, of the Chico ACLU chapter, wrote in an e-mail to fellow members.
Well, too bad. It was a done deal.
For his part, Maloney wanted to clarify some things about the vehicle. When news of it first appeared a couple months ago, there was a suggestion that the vehicle was some kind of tank. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. The vehicle is basically “an oversize pickup truck” with special features, he explained.
It’s like the city’s current rescue vehicles, he added, but better equipped and able to withstand up to 50-caliber rifle fire. The current vehicles can repel only small-arms fire, he said.
The vehicle will be used primarily in downed-officer and rescue/hostage situations, but could also be used for bomb disposal and crowd control.
That’s what worried some speakers. Charlie Preusser, who lives in the south campus neighborhood, said he was concerned it could be used as “an offensive weapon.” And local blogger and all-around provocateur Quentin Colgan said he was convinced the purpose of the “tank” was “to deny people their right to assemble and petition their government.” He called it “a weapon of mass destruction.”
Council members seemed to welcome the no-cost addition to the local armory, but Andy Holcombe, for one, questioned the process by which it was obtained. “The city wasn’t approached before it was purchased,” he complained. “What’s the process for the city to weigh in?”
Well, Maloney acknowledged in so many words, there wasn’t one. “Ultimately it’s up to the Approval Authority,” he said.
The ACLU was represented by local attorney Evanne O’Donnell, who thanked the council for holding the hearing. She didn’t disapprove of the new vehicle, but she did suggest that money could be better spent on officer training on how to deal with the mentally ill and on improving the police complaint process, which now has a two-year backlog.
In other council news, the panel voted 5-2 to prohibit, at least for now, medical-cannabis dispensaries in Chico. Councilmembers Scott Gruendl and Mary Flynn dissented. The vote effectively repealed the ordinance allowing two dispensaries passed on July 5. The ordinance allowing residential gardens remains in place.
This move was a continuance of the reaction to a veiled threat from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner to prosecute city officials on conspiracy charges for “facilitating” dispensaries that are illegal under federal law.
Almost nobody believes Wagner would go that far, when so many other cities have dozens of dispensaries, but the council wasn’t taking any chances.
But what about people who are disabled or live in apartments? Holcombe asked. “If the objective is to get needed medicine to the seriously ill, we’re only going halfway.”
“Someday we’re going to arrive at a way to distribute [medical cannabis],” Gruendl said.
“I feel like it’s wise to let the dust settle a little,” Councilman Jim Walker suggested.
The final message: The dispensaries issue will be back.