For Petaluma police, armored vehicles are a mixed blessing

Officials like the protection, but “I would absolutely welcome replacing that vehicle,” Petaluma Chief Ken Savano said.|

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.

8 - AB481 - Staff Report and Attachments.pdf

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.”

For example, in December 2019, police used it to provide a shield between a possibly armed man who had barricaded himself at Mike’s Barbershop on Western Avenue and the preschool inside B’nai Israel Jewish Center directly across the street. The three-hour standoff ended peacefully.

Savano and Miller both said police in Petaluma – and across the state – are “outgunned” as society becomes flooded with ever-more firearms packing ever-greater firepower. At the same time, there is growing incidence of mass shootings and active-shooter situations, which they say increases the hazard to themselves and the public.

“The likelihood and the propensity of these things is just there and present,” Miller said.

That’s “the reality of the society that we live in,” Savano added. “We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘It’s never happened here.’ … It’s not the ‘if’ question, it’s the ‘when’ question.”

Even so, when the chance came up in 2017 to obtain the MRAP from El Monte, “I recommended against it for the same reason we are talking about it,” Savano said in his statement earlier this year.

“We would welcome replacement with a non-military surplus vehicle, but it will come with significant investment,” he said. “I had been extremely sensitive about its use. We don't take it out to engage in parades, or any other, you know, social rioting or disturbing of the peace. It is a specific tool for a specific mission.”

Savano’s reticence reflects an ongoing concern with providing military-grade armor and weapons to local law enforcement.

“Several studies show that the acquisition and use of military-grade equipment by civilian law enforcement agencies does not reduce crime or attacks on officers, while it does contribute to substantial community fear,” Garcia said. “Some studies also have found that police departments that acquire military-grade equipment are more likely to use violence.”

One such study was conducted by the ACLU, which determined in 2021 that “militarized police act aggressively and violently, target Black and Brown communities, and kill Americans at an alarming tempo.”

Since 1996, the ACLU wrote, “nearly 10,000 jurisdictions have received more than $7 billion of equipment.” But according to the rights group’s analysis, “contrary to the claims of its supporters, 1033 does nothing to make communities or officers safer.”

Transparency law

The reason Petaluma’s armored vehicles were on display recently is California Assembly Bill 481, passed in 2021, which requires police departments to disclose information on their military equipment.

Under AB 481, police departments must have a written policy governing the acquisition and use of the equipment. Every department’s policy must be approved by its local governing body – in this case the Petaluma City Council, which ratified the department’s policy last year.

AB 481 requires police departments to submit an annual report detailing what equipment is in use, how it’s being used, and what it costs. In addition, the equipment must be put on public display once a year – and for Petaluma police that happened May 4, in a brief open house at the station that Miller described as “well-attended.”

Because approval of the policy falls on elected city leaders, the Argus-Courier asked all City Council members their opinion on the use of military equipment in Petaluma. Four responded – Mayor Kevin McDonnell and City Council members Dennis Pocekay, Mike Healy and John Shribbs.

“In general I tend to not like the idea of using surplus military equipment in cities,” Pocekay said. But he added, “If they (the police) feel they have to have it, I’d just as soon use the free one than spend a million dollars on it.”

Mayor McDonnell said he is “offended that such acts of violence exist in America that this kind of equipment is needed or used in response to such crisis events. However, I am asked what would Petaluma do in case of an Uvalde crisis. I don't want our public safety department not to have access to the tools that they need in time of crisis.”

Both elected leaders noted that the city hired its first-ever independent police auditor last month – a move Savano applauded – which when established can “begin the process of selecting a citizens oversight committee,” Pocekay said.

Healy also said he agreed with the police department’s position. “If a situation were to arise where an armored vehicle was needed, you want it available, primarily for officer safety. But for the 99.9% of the time when it isn’t needed, it should be parked in the PPD parking lot.”

Shribbs differed from his colleagues, acknowledging that “Larger cities may consider armored vehicles for carrying their SWAT teams to dangerous shooting sites and other dangerous situations,” but in smaller Petaluma, “The problem with these vehicles is they get stored 99% of the time.”

Besides upkeep and other expenses, he said, “These vehicles also send a wrong message to the public that we are militarizing our police when we are trying hard to reduce force with SAFE teams” – the mental health crisis response program designed to reduce police conflict.

In short, he said, “The negative aspects far outweigh the positives.”

Don Frances is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at

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