New London police department's new military vehicle panned by some
New London — “Well intentioned” but “not well received.”
It’s how Mayor Michael Passero described the police department’s recent acquisition of an armored military vehicle known as a Cougar, a move completed without consultation of city staff or the City Council.
Police obtained the vehicle last month through the federal government’s Federal Surplus Property Program, or 1033 program, that provides surplus military vehicles and equipment free of charge to qualifying local and state police agencies.
The only cost associated with the Cougar, along with other vehicles and equipment obtained by the department over the last year, has been the shipping and handling.
Passero said the response to the newest vehicle arriving in the city, from the public and city councilors alike, “is mostly universally negative.”
He said there is generally a distrust of military-style vehicles being used as part of a civilian police force and while police Chief Peter Reichard has indicated it will be used only under special circumstances, Passero said it remains controversial.
The Cougar is in a class of vehicle known as MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and features a gun turret, run-flat tires and armor that can protect passengers from gunfire and explosions while traveling up to 65 miles per hour.
The 1033 program has been in place since the 1990s and gained national attention in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. The use of military equipment by police during protests there was viewed by some as an intimidating and unnecessary show of force.
“I think that the chief was well intentioned and was looking at public safety in a very specific type of emergency where you have an active shooter,” Passero said. “Vehicles like that could be indispensable in protecting officers’ lives and rescuing people in a fire field.”
But Passero said Reichard, who has championed successful community policing efforts in the city during his time here, might not have anticipated how the public would react to the vehicle.
“We should have worked through the issues before surprising people with this. He has to work through those issues now,” Passero said.
Reichard told city councilors on Monday that the vehicle could be used in active shooter situations. He appeared before the council to ask for $260,000 for the purchase of four new police vehicles and radio systems to replace worn-out patrol vehicles. The council ultimately approved the purchase.
Councilor James Burke said at the time of Reichard’s appearance he was unaware of the presence of the Cougar. Councilor Kevin Booker was the lone councilor to ask a question about it during the meeting.
“Since then, I’ve had several constituents reach out about their concerns,” Burke said. “It’s something we’re definitely going to have to look at. The fact that it was done without us being informed is unfortunate. I think it was short-sighted not to think there would not be a reaction.”
Burke said his own opinion is he doesn’t see the need in New London but said he looked forward to an “honest conversation,” not only about the presence of the Cougar in the city but about the costs of maintenance and training associated with it.
New London police Officer Ryan Soccio, whose duties include fleet manager at the department, said the Cougar is one on a list of items acquired by the department as part of the 1033 program. The department also has received three generators, a passenger van, two high-water rescue trucks and an ATV for patrols on Ocean Beach.
Soccio, in an emailed response to questions, said the department had been on the waiting list for the Cougar for months and was caught off guard when it received notice the vehicle was available and needed to be picked up or the department would risk losing the opportunity.
In an effort to minimize costs and avoid a $4,000 transport fee, Soccio said Reichard directed a police sergeant with a commercial driver’s license and a public works driver to retrieve the truck from a military base in North Carolina.
“We had to act quickly to avoid being skipped on the waiting list, which unfortunately gave the impression of secrecy,” Soccio said.
He said the truck is in good condition and the city has a heavy-duty mechanic capable of performing repairs, should they arise.
To dispel some misinformation, Soccio emphasized that the Cougar is not a “war-ready” vehicle, does not have any weapons and is “simply a large armored truck similar to a Brinks or Dunbar armored truck.”
“Many have asked why we need such a vehicle,” Soccio said. “The answer is quite simple, to protect the lives of our officers should the unthinkable happen in our city or in our region.”
The police department commissioned an Emergency Response Team in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018 and the team trains in various high-risk scenarios, such as shooter response, hostage situations and armed barricaded subjects in which a bulletproof truck for rescue operations could help save lives, Soccio said.
He said he also envisions the vehicle as a community policing tool for various community and children’s events such as the National Night Out, Touch-A-Truck, parades and activities where kids will have a chance to climb inside.
“In the same way that our K-9s are both an enforcement tool and community engagement asset, so too the Cougar will be a part rescue vehicle and part showpiece for our department,” Soccio said.