Earlier this week, the Vanguard reported that Sheriff Ed Prieto had decided to no longer pursue the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) for the sheriff’s department – he cited the political climate and community concern as well as the need to forge trust.
The Vanguard commends the sheriff on his actions –but the discussion that ensued from the proposal shed some light on a potential gray area regarding the city of Davis.
Based on responses from Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel, there is nothing to prevent the police department from bringing in two MRAPs to the city of Davis and deploying them as the chief sees fit.
Naturally, the police chief himself has better judgment than to act in this way, but our concern is that government cannot depend on the benevolence of its actors – it must act with institutional accountability and transparency, two things that are lacking in the current policies of the city.
During the discussion at the county level, Sheriff Ed Prieto rightly pointed to his solid record on civil rights and pledged that the use of the vehicle would be strictly for defensive purposes.
The sheriff pledged that the vehicle would not be used in protests or to assist in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids – and we believe him – but the question is how much the local law enforcement can control. We have seen situations like Santa Cruz where local law enforcement unwittingly assisted in immigration operations.
Likewise, while we take the police chief at his word as to how he and his department will conduct themselves, we are mindful that situations change. Like Sheriff Prieto, Mr. Pytel will not be chief forever, and so we must plan for the worst case scenario, the lowest common denominator.
This is just a hypothetical situation.
Back in 2014, the city of Davis had obtained an MRAP only to have the city council vote to return it. That MRAP ended up in Woodland, with another residing in West Sacramento.
At the time, Robb Davis said that “symbols matter,” and “we are a species that uses symbol” and “this symbolizes the most destructive force on the planet which is the U.S. military. I think we have to acknowledge that.”
And yet, while the city sent away the MRAP, the presence of two in the county means that an MRAP could be deployed any time in the city.
Deployed it was, less than six months after the council discussion. In March of 2015, both of those vehicles ended up in the city of Davis, used in a potential active shooter situation that turned out to be a murder-suicide.
Can we argue that this was a legitimate use? Certainly. It did not turn out to be a huge fiasco, but it is a reminder that the presence of such vehicles has no controlling policy by the city of Davis.
This week, Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel told the Vanguard that the use of either MRAP requires the chief’s or deputy chief’s approval in Davis.
He also told the Vanguard, “I never completed the written policy here because we ended up turning over the MRAP.” That would seem to leave rather broad discretion for when such vehicles could be deployed.
Again, do we believe that Chief Pytel would misuse the MRAP? No. But we are relying on a police official to act in a benevolent manner and we are relying on future chiefs to have the same ethics and mores as this one.
There are additional risks.
He also noted, “Nothing would prevent the feds or California National Guard from using armor in Davis under their rules/laws.”
He did add, “A local law enforcement agency does not report to the feds and cannot be commandeered by the feds (10th Amendment). This issue is extremely complex and highly nuanced.”
But that seems to leave open the issue that the surplus military equipment is property of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and when the sheriff had outlined potential uses, DHS was one of them.
Chief Pytel seems to discount this possibility and perhaps he is right. He argues, “This is one of those situations where what could happen in theory is not necessarily related to what will happen in real life. It’s safe to say CA law enforcement leaders are extremely sensitive to the so-called militarization issue.”
Yet it was only last fall that a TRIDENT (Tri-County Drug Enforcement Taskforce) multi-jurisdictional force, from Placer and other external counties, raided a legal cannabis cultivation near Winters.
Again, Chief Pytel discounts this as a real threat, “Task Forces like TRIDENT would not enter another city with a SWAT team (armor is attached to SWAT teams, not task forces) without first providing notice, opportunity to handle with local SWAT team, operations orders and de-confliction. Any conflict would be resolved by the chiefs/sheriffs involved. Chiefs/sheriffs operate under their own procedures. Conflict would ultimately be resolved by the authority granted to the peace officer under CA law (the law places restrictions on when a peace officer can act under certain situations and favors resolution by the local chief/sheriff).”
But can he ensure that this will not be misused? And again, shouldn’t we have more than just his word?
I certainly believe that Mr. Pytel, for the most part, is sensitive to militarization issues – although even he had to learn his lesson the hard way on the original MRAP flap.
The fact that the MRAP was back in Davis and in use five months after being returned by the council is cause for concern. And, while we have no reason to believe that Chief Pytel is being insincere here, the situation is similar to that of the sheriff – this is about institutional decisions, not about the intentions of individuals.
In our view, the city council would be best off having rules to limit and direct the use of MRAPs in the city of Davis – if we are to use them at all.
To me, this is a policy decision rather than simply an operational one – and it is one where there is clear concern, as expressed by the people who went up during business hours to participate in the Board of Supervisors meeting in February.
All we are asking for is that Chief Pytel develop a plan for when an MRAP can be brought to Davis and deployed, and that the council agree to it. That doesn’t seem to be unreasonable.
—David M. Greenwald reporting