Honolulu police are getting a new military-style armored vehicle that’s designed to combat high level threats and terrorist attacks.
“They’re specialized equipment used for specialized purposes,” said Honolulu Police Deputy Chief John McCarthy. Those purposes can include hostage situations, barricaded incidents and riots.
But civil rights groups have continually criticized these equipment purchases as signs of unnecessarily militarizing local police.
The department already has one sporadically deployed Lenco BearCat, an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. That vehicle was acquired in 2009. But the new one, which has a price tag of $580,000, is supposed to have enhanced capability, according to a city memo.
McCarthy said that amount includes maintenance and extra equipment that comes with the armored truck, which is funded through a Homeland Security Grant Program. The program is a combination of grant monies from federal agencies.
The federal grant money came through the state.
Honolulu’s share was about $3.8 million, $863,100 of which went to HPD, according to the city memo. Aside from the BearCat, Honolulu police also purchased vehicle barriers to control large crowds for $190,000 and upgrades for bomb clearance robots for $93,100.
The grant has offered the department an opportunity to make much needed upgrades, McCarthy said.
The BearCat, in particular, can be used as a “tactical intervention vehicle with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive capabilities,” according to a 2009 HPD annual report. Lenco BearCats are now being used by more than 700 law enforcement agencies across the country, the company’s website says.
McCarthy said HPD’s existing BearCat, which will be kept as a secondary vehicle, was most recently deployed to evacuate people during an incident in September when a man barricaded himself for 15 hours in his Pearl City home, fired shots, and at one point, threw gas inside the home.
The existing BearCat vehicle is assigned to HPD’s Specialized Services Division.
Local law enforcement agencies are being equipped with machines like the BearCat and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, meant for war, said Joshua Wisch, director of ACLU of Hawaii.
Purchases by HPD are a particular concern at a time when the islands are seeing increasing numbers of protests at Mauna Kea and elsewhere. One concern would be that the vehicle would be deployed at protests and could harm people, he said.
Another worry is the psychological effect on officers, as a 2014 ACLU report points out.
“It encourages the police officers to adopt a warrior mentality, as opposed to a mentality that’s more about community policing,” he said.
The ACLU report pointed out that the use of armored vehicles were rarely necessary in incidents the group examined. The analysis showed that they were mostly being used to execute search warrants and transport people, rather than combat terrorism, which many departments indicated as a primary purpose for the equipment on grant applications to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Given the many unanswered questions, Wisch believes there should have been public input before HPD went ahead and decided to acquire a BearCat vehicle.
McCarthy said he is aware of the criticism against armored vehicles by civil rights advocates.
“Most of this stuff is not offensive,” he said. “It’s defensive.”