Tuesday evening took an odd turn as suddenly two of the councilmembers with the strongest record on fiscal prudence were proposing the city allocate $300,000 for a BearCat or another civilian replacement for the MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle), which they conceded would be returned by the city of Davis.
This came on the heels of the council, without further discussion, approving the new city manager contract and its nearly $30,000 raise over the previous contract.
The discussion of such an allocation outside of the context of the budget forced Interim City Manager Gene Rogers, with two weeks to go in his tenure, to actually speak up and tell the council they should pause and take into consideration the totality of their financial situation in the budget.
“One question you would want to ask the police is what are your needs, whether it’s personnel or equipment and how would you prioritize it?” he pointed out. “I think you should maybe be a little bit patient in terms of making an allocation tonight without having at least the grounding of the fiscal implications of doing that with respect to the budget.”
But even that comment was not enough to convince Councilmember Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee on this issue.
One point of discussion that seemed lost on Tuesday was actual usage and need. In the last five years, the predecessor to the MRAP, the Peacekeeper, was used 43 times, but only 11 of those times was it used in the city of Davis. That means that, in the average year, the city of Davis used the vehicle twice.
Is that worth a $300,000 expenditure? From an efficiency standpoint it does not make much sense in these tough budget times to allocate that type of money for a piece of equipment that will be used twice a year.
Brett Lee’s comment that the city would be looking at purchasing a new fire engine at half a million was interesting. One thing is clear, the city has over-compensated city employees at the expense of infrastructure and equipment needs.
That said, the interim city manager is spot on when he talks about the need to work this consideration within the scope of the overall budget. Is the biggest need for the police more equipment or personnel? Would you rather have a BearCat or three additional police officers that could help patrol the streets?
Of course, proponents will argue that we just turned back a free vehicle. But did we? Many were quick to accept at face value from the police that the MRAP was a low maintenance and highly effective vehicle. But was it?
Robb Davis on Tuesday night put forth a lot of new information, born from his research, that no one has actually refuted.
As the mayor pro tem would argue, the MRAP “does one thing well, it protects people inside.” However, beyond that, there are a lot of questions about “the value of this vehicle.”
“One of the reasons we’re seeing them show up in our communities is because they haven’t worked very well except for one thing – as you’re going down a road, a pretty straight road, a flat road, if a bomb goes off, it will protect everybody inside. That we know. Everyone agrees with that,” the mayor pro tem explained. “Where the disagreement comes in is what happens if you have to wheel it into a tight spot.” He said up hills, on uneven terrain, even up driveways are problematic for the vehicle.
“What happens in an urban environment?” he continued. “The consensus there is that it’s not very well adapted.” He called it “a product of really a broken military system. There were five companies that made these.” He said when they “got into theater they couldn’t even find the parts to repair these because they’re specialized parts.”
The other point he made was that this is not just a truck. There are only a few manufacturers for it, it is highly specialized, but “the reality is that the experience in military situations around the world is that it’s been a complete headache.”
The mayor pro tem went so far as to say, “If I were to make a prediction today… I would say in about five years there’s going to be a lot of jurisdictions that are looking to get rid of these things. They just aren’t adapted to the situation.”
That the MRAP was not ideal was conceded by all on the council, including Brett Lee and Rochelle Swanson. All things being equal, Brett Lee said, “I would choose the civilian version because it’s clearly more appropriate.” Councilmember Lee noted that, while free, the MRAP is “a former military vehicle and not designed for civilian use.”
Some people have conceded these points, arguing that whatever use it has is better than nothing. But is it? Leaving aside the political calculations here, do we really want to rely on a vehicle that might not work well in the urban environment?
Every alternative we have, of course, has a downside. On Tuesday night, Rochelle Swanson made the argument that, when push comes to shove, there is value in owning our equipment, running our operations, because at least then we can be assured that our community values are upheld.
While I’m okay with that argument, we have had a regional approach to SWAT for 25 years, and we have had an agreement with West Sacramento to use the Peacekeeper. And, given the amount of times that we have used the vehicle in the last five years, given our current situation, owning our own equipment might be considered a “nice to have” but doesn’t seem to be a “need to have.”
If we have extra money for the police, I’d rather it go to additional personnel instead of equipment.
One of the councilmembers, in response to a possible JPA arrangement, argued that they don’t believe the community wants West Sacramento or another agency coming into a high stress situation in Davis. That’s already happening.
There were multiple agencies that were involved in the Royal Oak raid a month ago. We have arrangements with other jurisdictions for SWAT. Things like YONET and the Yolo Gang Task Force are multi-agency operations.
For the typical usage of these vehicles, a joint arrangement is going to work just fine. The one situation that probably is not covered by such an arrangement is the live shooter situation. The question there is how far do we go to prepare for the extremely low probability event? Even under ideal situations, we have to hope for the best anyway.
The community has now spoken. The council is returning the vehicle. The next step, however, is to find some sort of armored vehicle better designed for civilian and urban use. I continue to argue that Davis should not attempt to own its own vehicle, not because it is okay for another agency to have the vehicle, but rather because we simply do not use one often enough for it to justify solo ownership.
—David M. Greenwald reporting