For Petaluma police, armored vehicles are a mixed blessing
Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano is of two minds about his department’s armored vehicles.
On the one hand, they are sometimes useful. Savano cited a handful of times over the last six years that his department used an armored vehicle to offer protection – both for police and the public – from potential gunfire. A report created last year by his department lists 16 times the armored vehicles were deployed between August 2018 and November 2021 for purposes such as “gang assault investigation,” “domestic violence with gunshots fired,” and “armed robbery.”
They have other uses too, like during last January’s rains, when police took their largest armored vehicle into Petaluma’s flooded streets to help residents living on Stony Point Road who had become trapped by rising waters.
On the other hand, Savano knows the public is leery of seeing police officers driving through city streets in machines built for war.
“I would absolutely welcome replacing that vehicle,” he said in a statement after its January appearance caused a stir. “I acknowledge that it was designed for a different place and a different purpose. But it does have the level of armor protection that we need … for help in the most dangerous of situations.”
In an interview with the Argus-Courier soon after that statement was published, Chief Savano and Deputy Chief Brian Miller elaborated on the department’s need for armored protection, if not for those specific vehicles.
“Our preference would be to have one of the commercially made vehicles for law enforcement,” Miller said. A common example is the BearCat, an armored SWAT vehicle made by Lenco that both Miller and Savano believe would be more appropriate for urban policing.
But such vehicles can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. By contrast, the two armored vehicles currently owned by the Petaluma Police Department were free through the federal government’s controversial Law Enforcement Support Office 1033 Program – sometimes called LESO or “1033” for short – which funnels surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies free of charge.
According to a June 2020 city staff report, the Petaluma Police Department’s military equipment inventory includes flash-bang grenades, sniper rifles, a variety of lethal and non-lethal munitions, and its two diesel-powered armored vehicles.
The larger of the two, the Mine Resistant Armored Personnel Carrier, or MRAP, is a military-grade armored vehicle obtained in 2017 from the El Monte Police Department in Southern California. The other one, called a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle, or M-ATV, is similar, but smaller and lighter. Although both were designed for war, neither are known to have been in combat, Miller said.
The sticker price on an MRAP and an M-ATV is $733,000 and $575,000, respectively, though they cost the department nothing. Maintenance for both vehicles is approximately $5,000 a year, Miller said.
Miller said there is no cost for storage as the vehicles are kept at the police station on Petaluma Boulevard – where they were briefly put on public display on Thursday, May 4.
Although Miller didn’t know the vehicles’ specific ballistic rating, he said they are “far superior to our ballistic vests and vehicle door panels, allowing added protection from the high-powered AR-15 rifles we encounter frequently.” Before obtaining the military vehicles, the department used a Brinks armored car like the ones used to carry cash to and from banks. (The Brinks vehicle has been decommissioned and can now be seen at The Block beer garden off E. Washington Street.)
Free or not, the vehicles have plenty of detractors. Zahyra Garcia, a former member of the Petaluma Ad Hoc Community Advisory Committee and current chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the NAACP Santa Rosa-Sonoma County Branch, is opposed to them because, Garcia says, they are costly, unnecessary and “Will be used against the public,” especially people of color.
“Despite claims by some police, tank-like vehicles, ‘less lethal’ munitions, and assault rifles are not ‘deescalation tools,’” Garcia said. ”In many cases, these weapons have the opposite effect, for both officers and community members, leading to escalation and even killing by police.“
A question of need
Miller described the times that Petaluma police used an armored vehicle to guard against potential gunfire as “high-risk search warrants or the suspects that we were attempting to arrest were armed and dangerous.”