At its Tuesday meeting, City Council approved plans for Berkeley Police Department to purchase an armored van, which BPD says will help enhance the safety of officers and civilians — although the decision has caused concerns among some community members.
The purpose of the van is to better protect officers responding to potentially violent incidents, according to Lt. Kevin Schofield. While the city received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security worth $125,373 to buy the van, an additional $80,000 will be taken from the city’s forfeiture fund to help pay for the vehicle.
Currently, BPD uses a van that lacks ballistic protection, a deficiency which exposes officers in the vehicle to gunfire. The armored van, which is equipped with steel ballistic panels, can be used in high risk scenarios such as conducting search warrant services, arresting warrants of homicide and traveling through violent situations involving gunfire.
“This (van) would allow us another mechanism to allow us to potentially move people from a position of danger into a position of safety,” Schofield said.
Some members of the community, however, say that the van is an unnecessary use of the city’s funds that will contribute to the militarization of the police. City Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who was the only council member to vote against the purchase of the van, said the presence of such a vehicle could spark fears among members of the community.
“We need to have neighborhood friendly police,” Davila said. “We don’t need to have police acting as if civilians need to be approached in a militarized fashion.”
She added that council members did not get to view the interior of the van before the decision was made and disagreed with the fact that city money funding the purchase was made from past arrests.
According to Schofield, the van looks inconspicuous and will not possess mounts for weaponry.
“We are intentionally pursuing a very discreet, low key looking vehicle because we are aware that there are concerns about militarization,” Schofield said. “This is a defensive tool, not an offensive tool.”
Mike Lee, a former mayoral candidate and homelessness activist, was present at the meeting to express his concerns about the vehicle’s purpose in providing safety for civilians. According to Lee, police officers should focus on using deescalation to resolve potentially violent incidents.
“What they could have done was use that same grant to up their weapons capability,” Lee said.