During more than two hours of testimony, the Concord City Council heard from nearly 50 people testifying about whether or not the city should accept a $260,000 grant for an armored vehicle. Only four people testified in favor of the grant; everyone else testified against it, for a variety of reasons.
In the end, the matter was tabled until September.
The hearing started in the street – with about 200 people showing up outside of city hall just after 6 p.m., calling for the councilors to reject the grant. The protesters were a mix of different kinds of activists involved in the Free State Project, a group that is attracting people to move to New Hampshire to create a more libertarian state, and members of the Occupy New Hampshire movement. Both groups were upset that they were mentioned in the grant as possible reasons for a need of an armored vehicle.
The council chamber slowly began to fill up with people wanting to testify while outside, protesters banged on drums and gave speeches. Concord Fire Chief Dan Andrus was a bit concerned about the capacity of the room, which is only 100, and made sure that fire exits were clear in case of emergency.
In asking the council to approve the grant, Concord Police Chief John Duval gave a bit of history of the tactical team in Concord moving from an in-house, 16-member team to a regional team with 20 communities, from Concord up to Lincoln in 2007. The Bearcat was being requested, he said, to replace an aging Peacekeeper unit. If approved, the Bearcat, Duval said, would be used for “high risk situations” such as drug raids, hostage rescue, and search and rescue, and wouldn’t be deployed for normal operations, only in emergency situations.
Duval said that the unit would cover policing for more than 150,000 people.
Dan St. Hilaire, an at-large city councilor who was acting as mayor pro temp, decided to limit testimony to a single minute, due to the crowd size, much to the chagrin of nearly everyone in the room.
Carla Gericke, the president of the Free State Project, was allowed to testify for longer than a minute, and said the members of her group, as well as others, weren’t terrorists and there was no need for Concord to have “an attack vehicle.” She said the group was “deeply offended” by the grant application, calling it “fraudulent” and “misleading,” and adding that it defamed 15,000 state residents. Gericke was disappointed that she was unable to receive a public apology from Duval and other officials who approved the grant application and called on councilors to do the right thing and reject the grant.
However, Mike Little, a former city councilor, said the board should vote to approve the grant. He said comments about it being a tank were false and pointed to police incidents in other states where officers weren’t protected against firepower.
“You have no idea about the weapons on the street today,” he said.
Pam Ean, a former police officer, said the grant was “very disconcerting” and believed that it was showing that the police were becoming more militarized. She also pointed to the $17 trillion in debt of the federal government and said it was important for local and municipal governments “to set an example.”
But Sheriff Scott Hilliard of Merrimack County, who used to be the police chief of Northfield, said the Bearcat was “a tool in the toolbox that we have” and even though it looked “rough,” it was important to protect the citizens of all the communities in the unit.
A number of state representatives including Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, and Rep. Emily Sandblade, R-Manchester, all spoke against the grant.
Kim Murdoch of the Concord Public Safety Foundation said the group was in favor of the grant because the Bearcat could be used to help and protect people in emergency situations.
Jim McConaha agreed with Ean saying the federal handouts were becoming an “addiction” that “distorts your planning and decision-making.” He pointed to another item on the agenda – the purchase of 270 acres for nearly $1 million – that the council had spent years working on. McConaha said the council should look at federal grants the same way and compared Concord needing a Bearcat to the city needing a nuclear submarine.
“I would like to see this council take some leadership,” he said.
Irena Goddard agreed, saying that her experience in her native Czechoslovakia that the government would use schools, the law, and law enforcement to brutally implement the laws of the state under the guise of protecting people. She said the Bearcat could be used as a tool to “wage a war against the First Amendment” and “suppress free speech” like what was done in communist countries.
A Maple Street resident suggested delaying the vote to get more community input while a number of out-of-town residents, most from Manchester or neighboring communities like Boscawen, Chichester, Epsom, as well as communities in the special ops unit, spoke out against the grant, saying that the application written by the police chief made them feel unsafe in Concord.
One resident, Ray Fitzgerald, worried about the military training that came with the Bearcat and said that the military creed of conduct might overcome the police creed of conduct to protect and serve. He pointed to the Bearcat name – Ballistic Engineered Armor Response Counter Attack Truck – as proof to be worrisome.
“It was presented here as a rescue truck but it’s designed to be a military attack vehicle, to destroy the enemy,” Fitzgerald said, “and so given that, since we have been designated the enemy, we have some concern about that.”
At this point in the testimony, City Manager Tom Aspell jumped in and wondered if everyone involved would feel better if the city changed the language of the application and added that officials had been in touch with the federal government about doing this and they seemed OK with it. Aspell later met with Gericke, Hoerr, and Lambert to discuss language but were stopped in a point of order by Ward 10 Councilor Fred Keach who said he didn’t like that there seemed to be a side agreement being hashed out in the middle of the testimony.
Aspell later sat down.
Brian Blackden, a former officer, spoke out against the grant saying that the state police had a Bearcat that could be anywhere in Concord in 15 to 20 minutes, if needed. He suggested that the money would be better spent providing Level 4 body armor for Concord Police officers, so when they got out of the Bearcat, they would be protected from shootings.
A number of people also spoke about the corporate welfare angle, suggesting that the company that produced the Bearcat, Lenco, had lobbied Congress for funding for a product that even Duval said he wouldn’t pay local tax dollars for.
“They’re just taking money out of our community and giving it to a company that builds a product that is unneeded and unwanted,” said William Kostric, a supporter of Occupy.
Ian Underwood countered that maybe the council should accept the Bearcat and then sell it and use the money for something else.
Towards the end of the meeting, St. Hilaire suggested that vote on the grant be tabled until September which was agreed to later in the evening by an 8-to-4 vote.