A city in Alberta, where recent law enforcement news included two cops being chased by an upset owl, will soon be awaiting delivery of an armoured vehicle for the local police force.
After a fierce debate, city council in Medicine Hat, Alta., approved the purchase by a vote of five to four. Technically, though, the truck had already been approved months earlier, when the Medicine Hat Police Commission voted unanimously in favour.
The catch is that the money to cover the $275,000 price tag for a Ballistic Armoured Tactical Transport 4V Armoured Rescue Vehicle, manufactured by the Armored Group, LLC, was going to come from a loan. That necessitated council passing a bylaw to approve the loan.
Medicine Hat is a city of a bit more than 61,000 people, and is a little less than 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary. It has its fair share of crime: statistics provided to the police commission say the tactical team was dispatched 19 times in 2013. As well, that year, police responded to 831 weapons complaints—12 of which were for firearms.
Having an armoured vehicle isn't entirely new, either: the Medicine Hat Police Service had one previously—but it was just a repurposed Brinks truck—and police ditched it five or six years ago, citing concerns that the armour wasn't tough enough.
Nevertheless, when the purchase came before council, it sparked debate, one that centred around, in some ways, Coun. Bill Cocks, a criminal trial lawyer and former Crown prosecutor, who became the face of the opposition.
"I think most people are opposed to it simply on the grounds that they don't believe we need it, they just go, 'I wouldn't spend $50,000 for one of those things, we don't need it,'" Cocks said in an interview.
But, Insp. Tim McGough, head of the support services division with the police, said the vehicle is necessary to "enhance police officer and public safety."
"In the last 18 months there has been at least three firearms-related incidents that our officers have been involved in where an armoured rescue vehicle could have been used," said McGough in an email.
The inside of the armoured vehicle.
Part of the justification is that an armoured vehicle helps get police in close to a situation—say, a shooter—and then police might be able to use a Taser or other less lethal means to take down a suspect. Robert Dumanowski, who supported the purchase, and sits on the police commission, said "post-mortems" from previous incidents showed an armoured vehicle would be an asset, and it's one that police predict will last for 20 years.
"Even though crime's going down in Medicine Hat, we have an increase in dangerous crime, for lack of a better word," Dumanowski explained by phone.
Additionally, Medicine Hat is a few hours from the nearest big city, meaning that if a serious incident of some sort does occur, in the absence of their own armoured vehicle, local cops would have to wait for reinforcements from another municipality.
"When you're dealing with high-risk situations like this, the immediacy of being able to deploy that kind of equipment is absolutely imperative," Dumanowski said.
Nevertheless, the purchase is controversial, though not exactly over the money, which, realistically, is a drop in the bucket in a city budget of millions of dollars. But, it highlights policing strategy in the community, which has Hatters (the folks who live in Medicine Hat) riled up, Cocks said, noting the opposition is mainly due to two factors.
"The philosophical 'we don't want it,' bleeds into the pragmatic 'we don't need it, good god, we're in Medicine Hat, Alberta, we do not need an armoured vehicle,'" Cocks explained. "We have our share of drug trafficking, but we don't have major drug lords holed up in fortresses that need to be assailed."
Five of his colleagues on city council, though, plainly didn't agree with his assessment of the necessity of an armoured vehicle.
"We are replacing an existing vehicle that will be used by our tactical unit, which again, is not new," Dumanowski said. "Could we use a school bus? Absolutely. Is that prudent? Is that practical? No, it's not."
He argued that the fight over the purchase constitutes meddling in police operations. Council has control over police budgets, and officers are constrained through the Police Act, but Dumanowski indicated that there's a problem with civilians questioning police expertise, especially when the police are already responsive to many public concerns, such as drunk driving.
"When it comes to day-to-day management on an operational level, I'm sorry, you don't have the right to tell the police how to do things," he argued. "Pretty soon, the public, through the elected officials, are going to be challenging the police why they even have a tactical unit. Why do they utilize smoke bombs and stun bombs and Tasers and deployment of batons and tear gas? These are tools that every tactical unit has at their disposal."
The purchase of heavy equipment—whether it's weapons or armoured vehicles—has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Critics refer to the process of "police militarization," and argue that the change in materiel leads to a shift in the way policing is done, from community-oriented, public service policing, to officers that look and behave like an occupying army.
"I do have a concern about the militarization of police and the kind of 'us and them' mentality that seems to... wash through a lot of police dealings in this community, and in a lot of communities," said Cocks. "(Many young men), rather than feeling sympathetic towards the police, are really left feeling that there's this very macho, well-armed, well-dressed, well-kitted organization in their city that just harasses them."
For their part, police reject the idea that equipment is changing their behaviour, and the premise that they're becoming militarized.
"To equate the appropriation of an armoured rescue vehicle by police to the militarization of police, is in itself a faulty analogy and a mischaracterization of its purpose," said McGough. "Police services have always used various forms of armour to protect themselves and the public from projectiles and gunfire. Police have had personal body armour, ballistic shields and armoured rescue vehicles at their disposal for many years."
Regardless, the purchase has raised several questions about oversight and crystallized an issue that previously has, in Canada, mostly been a debate in major urban centres.
"This is the first I have heard of a small city acquiring an armoured vehicle," said Darryl Davies, a criminology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a vocal critic of police militarization.
He argued that tens of thousands of dollars would be far better spent on drug addiction and poverty reduction programs to fight the causes of crime.
"Instead, it's Tasers, armoured vehicles, bulletproof vests, tactical training, the complete antithesis of what policing is supposed to be about, namely a service to the community," Davies said.
Police equipment is still a hot-button issue, and one that continues, in both the United States and Canada (Edmonton police recently asked for another helicopter, for example), and raises questions about policing tactics, culture and expenditures.
"The police subculture in Canada all subscribes to the 'toys for the boys' syndrome, but not to the extent that they do in the US. However, unless it is nipped in the bud we will continue to see Canadian police mimic their US counterparts," Davies warned.