The Kingston Common Council last week voted 6-2 to approve using a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security toward the purchase of a tactical team vehicle for the Kingston-Ulster Emergency Services Unit. Two councilmen, Alderman Tony Davis (D-Ward 6) and Councilman Steven Schabot (D-Ward 8) who voted against the proposed resolution during a meeting of the Finance and Audit Committee on Wednesday, July 14 shifted and voted in favor of the purchase last week.
The council’s standard allotment of 30 minutes of public comment grew to around two hours during the Tuesday, August 3 meeting. Most of the speakers were there to discuss the 2004 Lenco BearCat G1, which would be purchased with the grant, plus an additional $75,000 from the Town of Ulster for use by the Kingston-Ulster Emergency Services Unit, its first buy since a 1979 armored car was deemed inoperable two years ago. Since then, the Kingston-Ulster Emergency Services Unit has had to rely on other agencies in emergency situations.
Speakers in favor of the purchase expressed concern for rising violence in the City of Kingston and bristled at critics’ depiction of the vehicle as a tank.
“The group and groups railing against this acquisition speaks of police shootings from this vehicle and uses terms such as an ‘assault vehicle’ and ‘military force,’ instilling fear and harm coming from the hands of this ‘terrifying, monstrous’ vehicle,” said Stephen Peruso. “This is nothing more than bullying using scare tactic and false information. These accusations are far from the truth. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as the multiple uses for this and other vehicles like it enable all emergency responders the ability and access to dire situations that they may encounter. These include hostage situations, domestic violence, mass shootings, or even natural disasters.”
The Rev. Donald Mapes, a member of the city’s Police Commission, agreed.
“The fact of it is, it is not an assault vehicle,” Mapes said, adding that the BearCat was a necessary piece of equipment for a dangerous job. “You take insurance. Why? If something happens you’re covered. You build buildings you put sprinklers and fire extinguishers in. Why? Just in case something happens…They need protection to go in there and do things that us citizens and everybody else can’t do. They need to be protected.”
Alderman Davis voted against the purchase during July’s committee meeting, but said he’d had a change of heart after further investigation. “We need this vehicle,” Davis said. “How many of you would ask a city firefighter to go into a potential hot spot, a fire, without protective gear and a fire truck to protect themselves and the citizens? So why should city law enforcement be asked to go into a potential hot spot, an active or potential shooter scene without protective gear and an armored vehicle to protect themselves and the citizens?”
A tank, or not a tank?
But some speakers questioned the validity of the armored BearCat’s use for rescue situations.
“There’s no feasible, realistic circumstance that justifies an armored vehicle I’ve heard to rescue children,” said Amanda Sisenstein. “Is the KPD traveling to a war-torn country to rescue these children? It is simply a shiny new toy to intimidate the community. I keep hearing it be called an emergency rescue vehicle. Ambulances and fire trucks are emergency rescue vehicles. Not tanks. Not armored vehicles…How about we get bigger and better ambulances to go to these big, horrible emergencies that you want the tank for? Because tanks aren’t ambulances.”
Beetle Bailey said bringing the armored vehicle into the city would exacerbate rather than aid in the city’s problems. “Send resources to social, education and health programs and to groups who can do more than terrorize, maim and kill,” Bailey said. “Be a human being and vote no on the free-to-own rescue tank. Let it rust where it sits. Focus on really rescuing this community, all of it, for the sake of everyone who lives here. Vote no. Be human. It’s that simple.”
Pat Pellicano said the speakers opposed to the armored vehicle knew it wasn’t actually a tank, but argued that the semantics aren’t the point. “It’s sort of incomprehensible how after 15 months of us being out in the street protesting police violence that you think it’s a good idea to get this free BearCat Lenco armored SWAT vehicle,” Pellicano said. “We know it’s not a tank. We’re calling it a tank because it has the same effect on the vulnerable community as a tank.”
Chief says it’s necessary
Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said that while he supports some of the opponents’ ideas, the BearCat is still necessary to protect members of the emergency unit.
“I will agree with some of the speakers that there has to be money put towards other social service developments,” Tinti said. “I understand that this is not going to help with mental illness, this is not going to help with the issues that we have to deal with every day on patrol. What this will do is help when it’s needed in a crisis situation…Not one of the speakers who took the microphone and will come out at two o’clock in the morning and leave their families behind to do their jobs. They’re not doing it for the pay, they’re doing it because they live it.
Councilwoman Rita Worthington (D-Ward 4) attempted to send the discussion back to committee pending further clarification on how and when the vehicle could be used. “I think perception is real,” Worthington said. “I understand both sides’ argument, but there is a divide in our community…You can’t just toss that aside. There is a divide, and I believe that this is going to widen that divide.”
Worthington and Michele Hirsch (D-Ward 9) were the sole votes against the purchase. Reynolds Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3), who voted against the purchase in the July committee was absent from the August 3 meeting.