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New London gives thumbs-down to police department's former military vehicle

New London — The newest addition to the police department’s collection of former military vehicles will have a short stay in the city.

The City Council has decided that the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, also known as an MRAP or Cougar, is not a good fit for the city and voted 5-2 on Tuesday to ask that the vehicle be declared surplus and sold or disposed of.

The police department obtained the vehicle without charge through the federal government’s Federal Surplus Property Program, or 1033 Program, which distributes surplus military equipment to local police departments free of charge. The department previously obtained three generators, a passenger van, two high-water rescue trucks and an ATV for patrols on Ocean Beach, among other items, through the program.

But the Cougar's appearance in February came as a surprise to city administration and the City Council, a move Chief Peter Reichard said was an oversight but a call he made to secure the vehicle under a tight timeline.

Reichard and Sgt. Lawrence Keating made a final pitch to keep the vehicle with a presentation showing its uses as an invaluable piece of rescue equipment during storms and blizzards, or as an armored vehicle during an active shooter situation. Police have pushed back against criticism of it as a militarized vehicle despite its intimidating appearance.

“There is no tactical military equipment left on it,” Keating said. “It’s only going to be used in extreme weather situations where we can’t get any other type of vehicle there. It’s not going to patrol the streets.”

Police said a civilian version of a vehicle with the Cougar’s capabilities would cost an estimated $285,000.

But several councilors said the way the vehicle was obtained sowed seeds of distrust within the community at a time when Councilor Kevin Booker Jr. said “we really should be acting as one community, as we all know right now.”

Even though it is presented as a rescue vehicle, Booker said it was difficult for some community members to trust that would be its only use, noting how military vehicles have been used to break up protests across the country.

“The vehicle is not seen as a rescue vehicle but one of intimidation,” he said. “I do not like the image of the vehicle and what it symbolizes.”

Booker is also a Red Cross volunteer who has been deployed during hurricane disasters, however, and said that after gathering more information from police and learning about the vehicle's life-saving capabilities, he was torn. He ultimately voted against the measure to declare it surplus and joined two other councilors calling for more time to allow the police department to better educate the public.

Councilor Reona Dyess, who also agreed more time would be helpful but voted in favor of getting rid of the vehicle, said the information from police should have come sooner. If it had, she said, it may have helped community members feel more comfortable and allowed for “buy in.”

Councilor John Satti hinted that a vote for the vehicle’s removal showed a lack of support for police. “I would hope that any city councilor that says that they support police will in fact show their support this evening,” he said.

“If we support police, and I know there’s some people on this call that do not support police, want to see us defund it, I would recommend that you show tonight that you do in fact support what the police chief and what Sgt. Keating was talking about,” he said.

Satti’s comments drew rebukes from council President Pro Tempore Alma Nartatez and President Efrain Dominguez, who both voted to get rid of the vehicle.

“I think it’s unprofessional and inappropriate to state that if a councilor does not support this that we do not support the police department. And by the way, this has nothing to do with defunding police. It’s a highly inappropriate comment,” Nartatez said.

Dominguez called the comments “uncalled for.”

“No one here, Councilor Satti, said they are against police, that we don’t support police. We need accountability, that’s what we need,” Dominguez said. “No one gets to speak for me, sir.”

Widely used by law enforcement agencies across the country since the 1990s, the 1033 program has come under increased scrutiny ever since the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., where the use of military equipment by police during protests was viewed as an unnecessary show of force against civilians.

Though former President Barack Obama halted the program in 2015, President Donald Trump restored it in 2017. In Connecticut, the legislature recently passed a police accountability bill that prohibits, effective Oct. 1, law enforcement agencies from acquiring certain military equipment through the 1033 program, including MRAPs.

Making note of the vote in the state legislature, Councilor James Burke said, “By keeping this, I think it would move us backwards and not forward.”

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version correctly states the City Council's 5-2 vote.

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