Updated: Friday, 11:00 a.m.
The Mercer County freeholders have approved the purchase of an armored vehicle for its police force, a move the sheriff says will help keep officers safe but critics say will erode public trust in local law enforcement.
Despite recent examples of how the use of such vehicles in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere sparked a public backlash, the all-Democratic county freeholder board voted 4-2 Thursday night to award a roughly $310,000 bid to Massachusetts-based Lenco Industries.
The vote came after about two dozen members of the public spoke out against the proposal over the course of more than 2 hours, county spokeswoman Julie Willmot said. Freeholders Andrew Koontz and Samuel Frisby voted against the measure, while Pat Colavita was absent.
Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler, a Democrat, said in a statement ahead of the vote that the vehicle is not a tank or an “assault vehicle.”
“It is an armor-protected vehicle that will only be used for extremely dangerous situations, such as a sniper, hostage negotiations, bomb threats, mass shooting incidents, active shooter incidents at a school, the threat of a dangerous felon, and for protection during dangerous situations,” he said.
He noted that a similar vehicle was used by Philadelphia police during a standoff last month when a suspect shot six officers while barricaded in a North Philly rowhouse. Kemler said the vehicle “clearly saved the lives of officers and local residents.”
A number of local organizations came out against the purchase, however, including the NAACP of Trenton, and the Princeton Community Democratic Organization.
Rev. Bob Moore, executive director of the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action, pointed to a recent study by a Princeton University researcher that found “militarized” policing tactics, such as the use of SWAT teams, neither reduces violent crime, nor keeps police safer.
“And we know for sure, of course, from the experience of Ferguson, that it really wrecks things in terms of police-community relations and sends exactly the wrong signal,” Moore said in an interview this week. A show of force by police in that city in 2014 only fueled the anger of those protesting the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.
Several local groups also object to the vehicle’s price tag, especially since New Jersey counties already have access to the three armored vehicles owned by the State Police.
One of them deployed to a Panera Bread in downtown Princeton last year during a standoff between police and a man armed with what turned out to be a BB gun. The man was shot dead and the Mercer County vehicle was not used.
But John Cimino, chairman of the county’s freeholder board, said county officers can deploy more quickly if they have a vehicle of their own.
“In situations like these where there is unfortunately an active shooter or a hostage, we’re told that time is critical, and that we need to be as responsive as possible,” he said.
The Mercer County Sheriff’s Office will not be the first local law enforcement agency in New Jersey to acquire an armored vehicle. Dozens of agencies in New Jersey — and thousands nationwide — have acquired excess military equipment through the so-called “1033 Program” created by Congress in 1990.
That includes at least 13 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, acquired by local departments in New Jersey between 2015 and 2017, according to reporting by NJ Advance Media. Other equipment available to departments through the program includes riot gear, rifles, ammunition and computers at nothing more than the cost of shipping.
The Obama administration put restrictions on the program in 2015 after scenes of police with military gear facing off with protesters drew outrage, but the Trump administration lifted them in 2017. More than $5.4 billion worth of equipment has been distributed under the program since 1990, according to the Trump administration.
Cimino said Mercer County had looked into acquiring an armored vehicle through the program but determined that maintaining it and replacing parts would be too difficult.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Freeholder Andrew Koontz said he opposed purchasing a vehicle, in part, over concerns it could be used for non-defensive purposes.
“Some future Sheriff or future SWAT team commander may depart from current policy and use the vehicle in ways that I believe run counter to good local law enforcement practice,” he wrote in an Aug. 20 letter to the Princeton Community Democratic Organization.
Jean Durbin, president of that organization, said bringing an armored vehicle into an already-tense situation runs the risk of escalating things further.
“We should be using negotiators and other tactics to try to de-escalate potentially violent situations,” she said.