On Friday afternoon the Vanguard was able to sit down with Davis Police Chief Landy Black, along with Assistant Chief Darren Pytel. The Vanguard expresses its appreciation to the Davis Police for the amount of information and detail they were willing to elaborate on what is still an ongoing investigation.
It started with three questions: whether the individuals were alive at any point once the police arrived, why the delay in calling in the MRAP, and why two MRAPs.
We now understand pretty clearly that, while there is no official time of death, the shots were fired prior to the arrival of the police, the police heard no gunshots while they were there, and the coroner’s office indicated that death occurred immediately.
Second, the police based their initial call for the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) on the belief that Mr. Hein may have had access to an automatic rifle that could penetrate their existing equipment. And third, the police brought in two MRAPs from the tactical position of needing cover for two separate parts of the operation.
As it turns out, the police did not need either MRAP for this incident, as Mr. Hein not only was deceased by the time police arrived but also he didn’t have the weapon they feared he might have.
For this incident and future incidents, the need for armor turns on the likelihood of an active shooter situation and the probability that next time the individual will have the high-powered weapon that the police feared was in play in this incident.
The community and city council had already weighed in on the desirability for the Davis police to possess a military-grade vehicle. The future question that the council will have to answer at some point is whether it is all right for the Davis Police to bring an MRAP in from outside the city and whether it wants to expend the resources on an alternative.
Throughout this renewed discussion there has been a sentiment from many along the lines of: how dare we second-guess the police? While it is true we lack the direct training and experience of the police, the U.S. has a long history of civilians ‒ whether they be elected officials or the voters ‒ weighing in on policy matters affecting the police and providing guidelines and boundaries.
In this column, I wish to address three issues here – the need for two MRAPs, police policy on surround and call out versus dynamic entry, and finally the alternatives to the MRAP.
From the start, the concern about the MRAP was a concern about the militarization of the police. In recent days we have discussed concerns about police heavy-handed tactics in situations where such tactics were unnecessary.
When the idea of mission creep came up during council discussions last fall, Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, while acknowledging the potential for mission creep, downplayed it, arguing that, if anything, such discussion will make mission creep less likely and the police are more likely to err on the side of too little rather than excessive force.
In Radley Balko’s book on the rise of militarization in American police, he noted that Don Santarelli, who at the time headed up a federal agency that doled out grants and gear to police agencies, became concerned about requests by local police agencies wanting gear and military training to start their own tactical teams.
The book quotes him: “I was always hesitant about that. There were certain supervised, tightly controlled circumstances where that kind of force was appropriate. But law enforcement has never been good at self-discipline. Once they had that sort of capability, it would be difficult to limit it to those circumstances.”
From the start, this was our concern with bringing in the MRAP. The fear was that, while there may well be situations that call for the armored vehicle, having the equipment at easy disposal will convince the agency to use it with increasing frequency as a precaution.
Indeed, in this situation, they decided they needed two MRAPs. When asked, Darren Pytel had what on the surface at least seems to be a valid explanation of why they needed two. There are the specifics of these circumstances that meant that they had very little to no cover on the street. They put their team designed for rapid entry in one vehicle and the operator of the robot in the other vehicle.
As one person said, so now we not only need an MRAP, we need two MRAPs. Mission creep begins with a series of easily-defensible steps that no one in the end is able to stop from completely changing the original justification.
The second part of this story is the move away from dynamic entries toward a more time-intensive strategy of surround and call out. Darren Pytel spent a lot of time on Friday explaining why and how the Davis Police have changed their tactics.
He argued that the courts are asking police to slow things down. When things go to lawsuits, experts are called in and they cite best practices.
He stressed that this is a policy he very much agrees with, even though many departments continue to use dynamic entries ‒ with problematic results at times. He said there has been a change in thinking, away from rushing in to quickly shut down a situation. He said, “I think that’s a good thing.”
In general, the idea of moving away from dynamic entries is good. Most of the horror stories of why militarization of the police is a bad thing have to do with the consequences from dynamic entries and mistakes made in carrying them out.
The message sent was that Davis Police are very cognizant of the concerns surrounding these police tactics and wish to avoid them.
My concern is that it is not clear how much the rest of the police world buys into this approach and whether this is simply the view of the current leadership in Davis. On the one hand, Davis Police are asking for tools that can be used with this new approach – they take their vehicle and use them to be able to be in a secure location to wait out a situation. On the other hand, the uses of the MRAP are not limited to these more benign approaches.
Finally – Darren Pytel acknowledged that the MRAP is not the ideal vehicle for the needs of the Davis Police.
I firmly believe that the movement toward the militarization of the police has been dangerous to individual liberty in this country and has contributed toward a rising animosity between police and citizens in a lot of respects.
There is a tangible component to this, as well as a symbolic one.
Darren Pytel stressed that it does not have to be an MRAP. He said, “We understand the issue on MRAP.” He added, “We also know what it’s like to be using other types of vehicles… there are real advantages to having a more civilian modeled vehicle, including the size.” The size and speed of an MRAP are a problem for urban use. Assistant Chief Pytel expressed concern about apartments and tight quarters in Davis.
An MRAP would likely not be have been workable had this been an apartment complex – of which as we know there are many in Davis. Indeed, the presence of the apartment complex across the street was a huge headache for police trying to seal off the area.
Had this occurred in a school or another area with tight quarters, it would not have worked either.
Many proponents of the MRAP have argued that the cost of this vehicle (free with needed maintenance and adaptation costs) and its availability makes it the preferred choice to other alternatives.
As Councilmember Brett Lee put it, “The choice is the free item which has the negative aspects that it’s a former military vehicle and not designed for civilian use. The flip side is do we spend money for what would probably be the more appropriate vehicle for the community?”
However, as we see from this incident, the MRAP was able to work but they at least felt they needed two to perform their operations under these circumstances. The MRAP would not work at other potential future operations and locations.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis told Councilmember Lee that he was willing to put resources into a vehicle that provides protection to the police, however he would argue that the MRAP is really not an appropriate vehicle for our community.
“I would be very willing to put resources into a vehicle that provided protection,” he said.
“Fundamentally I don’t think the vehicle, the MRAP, is adapted to our situation,” he continued. “It does one thing well, it protects people inside.” Citing military literature, he argued, “There’s a lot of disagreement 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, 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 projected cost of an alternative is a lot, but if we really believe that the police need this vehicle and we already see limitations on foreseeable future incidents, it makes more sense to find an alternative.
While in the ideal world, I would prefer a more regional approach of vehicle sharing – particularly given the number of times per year that we should have a legitimate need for the vehicle. In the spirit of compromise, I am willing to support the city acquiring a non-military vehicle on the condition that we can have periodic audits of its use, made available in a transparent way to the public. And the added condition that we not attempt to bring an MRAP in from West Sacramento and/or Woodland again.
The history of militarization of the police bears out Mr. Santarelli’s concerns from 1971. I firmly believe that once the police have a toy, they are likely to utilize it in ways that were not conceivable when the decision was first made.
—David M. Greenwald reporting