It was a Friday afternoon in mid-August. It had been a relatively slow and quiet summer, following a new election and before the big events of fall were set to begin. Suddenly I received a text from someone asking me if I wanted to get a last-second beer.
I had to squeeze it in between meetings, but we agreed on the University of Beer. Sitting down at the bar later that day, the individual handed me a cell phone and said that that is Davis’ new police vehicle. On the cell phone was the infamous photo of the MRAP you see above. I looked incredulously at my companion, thinking this was simply a joke.
“Are you going to send it to me?” I asked. Of course, was the response. My mind was already churning – who knows about this thing? Not many people, it turned out. It took until Monday, but I immediately start inquiring – Who knows? When did they know? It seemed to have been there maybe ten days by the time I found out.
I had been doing this for eight years, and I knew a big story when I saw it. I knew this was an explosive story.
I would hold onto the story until Wednesday for two reasons. First, I wanted to give Police Chief Landy Black a chance to provide a full comment and background, which he did. Second, the police shooting in Woodland happened on Monday and that delayed the story an extra day.
By Tuesday night, I had councilmembers calling me and I ended up getting three councilmembers on the record that night, with Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis later in the week. My intuition was correct – the MRAP story broke our Nancy Peterson records for most unique views in a day. We published the story at 5 am, and by noon the Sacramento Bee had its story with the same statements from council posted. The Davis Enterprise had a story the next day.
Not only had the Vanguard broken the story, it forced the story out into the open. It is difficult to imagine that the MRAP would not have leaked out eventually, but it took ten days to get to the Vanguard, and the council as it turns out was not in the loop when the city obtained the vehicle.
This was really the second time the Vanguard had a story that reached national levels. In 2010, we covered the story of Robert Ferguson, facing life in prison for stealing a $3.99 bag of shredded chief. The Bee did the follow-up story and it would end up in the New York Times and Guardian of London. But those were side stories; this was far bigger.
One thing you learn quickly is you’re never going to get credit when your story blows up and goes national. The bigger fish never acknowledge the small fish that did the grunt work. And that’s fine.
The New York Times coming to Davis is a big deal. The Times reports, “The vehicle, a behemoth in brown camouflage paint, is now parked out of sight in front of a steamroller in a gully next to a city garage; on a recent day, a lone pigeon cooed overhead.”
Would there have been all of this uproar, absent the backdrop of Ferguson? Hard to know. Probably not at a national level. The Ferguson backdrop made it a national story – the first community to turn back the tide of police militarization.
There had been talk that the council’s opposition to the vehicle was weakening. I noted that in a comment, but I no longer believe that could be the case. The mayor’s comments in the New York Times make that extremely unlikely.
“This thing has a turret — it’s the kind of thing that is used in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Dan Wolk, the mayor, the New York Times reports. “Our community is the kind of community that is not going to take well to having this kind of vehicle. We are not a crime-ridden city.”
The mayor added: “When it comes to help from Washington we, like most communities, have a long wish list. But a tank, or MRAP, or whatever you choose to call it, is not on that list.”
There is not much room for hedging there.
The Times continues, “The Council’s decision set off waves of concern among police officials across the state and highlighted the fact that California — whose crime rate, like those of many other states, is on the decline — has one of the highest concentrations of surplus military equipment in the nation. That is perhaps not surprising for large cities like Los Angeles, but it is just as true in generally placid seaside getaways like Santa Barbara and here in this quiet community outside Sacramento.”
“At the City Council meeting in Davis where the vote took place, nearly 40 people spoke, and almost everyone urged the Council to return the MRAP. Council members were also deluged with emails,” the Times writes. “The backlash worries some law enforcement officials.”
Christopher Boyd, President of the California Police Chief Association and chief of police in Citrus Heights, said, “Some of the equipment that has been made available to departments has been a real savior. All of this equipment is needed, and this makes obtaining such equipment affordable. Armored vehicles are extremely valuable. They are very expensive. Most police departments cannot afford to buy them.”
The Times reports there is an economic component to this, where the economic downturn forced the police agencies “to contend with budget cuts at the very time that increasingly sophisticated crime-fighting equipment was coming on the market. The Defense Department’s surplus program, along with grants from the Department of Homeland Security to buy matériel, gave officials what was, at least until the vote in Davis, an irresistible opportunity.”
“A number of agencies became very adept at finding what was available,” said Sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara County, whose office used the program to stock up on helicopters, the Times reports. “And that word spread, and it spread at a time when all of our budgets had a tremendous strain on them because of the recession. It allowed departments that had been gutted to obtain the necessary equipment.”
“It’s time to recalibrate what the police are doing, what they have allowed to take over policing,” said Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief in San Jose, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo., who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “The facts are so overwhelming on the side of getting police back to the side that they are public servants and that you accept the risk. No one drafted you into police work.”
The Times adds, “Davis waited two years to get its armored vehicle, Lt. Thomas W. Waltz said as he used both arms to pull open the huge driver’s-side door. The police chief was given 60 days to report back to the City Council on how to get rid of it.”
Brett Lee, as we know, was the only councilmember to vote against giving back the equipment.
“I wasn’t sure whether we needed one or didn’t need one,” Mr. Lee said in an interview. “Let’s not just send it back until we’ve determined whether we need one or don’t need one.”
The Times acknowledged Davis’ history of sensitivity to “overaggressive policing,” noting the 2011 pepper-spray incident: “Mr. Wolk, the mayor, said the episode had made residents even more wary of the armored car. That wariness is not isolated to Davis.”
Sheriff Brown of Santa Barbara County said there had been “a lot of misunderstanding about the program — in some quarters, even hysteria.”
“The reality is that this is a great program,” he said. “It provides law enforcement with a lot of very valuable equipment that in many instances — in fact, most instances — could not be obtained or afforded, and allows us to do a better job of protecting our citizens and our own public safety personnel.”
The one area that the New York Times really did not get into is why the movement to push back on weapons has exploded so much. They used police officials as the counterweight to Davis without introducing concepts that go back to people like Radley Balko and the ACLU to establish why there is concern about the militarization of police.
That said, overall it was a good article that did not portray Davis in a poor light at all – and, really, as we have all learned, that’s all you can ask.
—David M. Greenwald reporting