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Armored Vehicles Can Stop Bullets But Not Scrutiny In 'Defund Police' Debate04:45
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An armored police vehicle drove past the State House as protesters dispersed on May 31. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An armored police vehicle drove past the State House as protesters dispersed on May 31. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

At protests against racism in recent weeks, the same kind of armored police vehicles that helped capture Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have sometimes performed crowd control. Many of these bulletproof trucks, used by police across the country, are made in Massachusetts by a company called Lenco Industries.

Officials in Boston and other cities are scrutinizing such law enforcement gear, amid activists' calls to defund the police. Armored vehicles are a big target because, to some, they are hulking symbols of overzealous, militarized policing that too often targets people of color.

At demonstrations in Philadelphia, Tampa and La Mesa, California, some people protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis turned their ire on Lenco trucks, hurling rocks and other projectiles.

Philadelphia Police Lt. Willie Williams said he can understand why an armored vehicle may be an unwelcome sight.

"It can escalate a situation because people, especially the communities of color, feel like we're being besieged upon all the time, anyway," said Williams, president of the National Black Police Association's Region 3 chapter, which includes Boston. "And now you have the military vehicle. You know, why us, is the mentality."

Armored vehicles can send the wrong message, Williams added, making people feel invaded rather than protected. But he also said they are an important safety tool for police, including at a recent Philadelphia protest.

"We had officers basically penned in by the crowds, and we were able to get the officers up and out," he said. "All of those vehicles were graffitied up, were hit with rocks and bottles. And if it wasn't for them, we would have had a whole lot more officers countrywide hurt."

An armored police vehicle met a group of demonstrators on Beacon Street in Boston on June 2. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
An armored police vehicle met a group of demonstrators on Beacon Street in Boston on June 2. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Certain projectiles that bounced off armored vehicles may have penetrated regular cruisers. But some police critics argue riots and other events that demand the protection of armored trucks are too rare to justify the vehicles' expense -- and the bad will they can foster in their communities.

"There was a real switcheroo that was pulled on the American people," said Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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Crockford notes the original reason police departments got armored trucks and other military-grade equipment was, in many cases, to prepare for possible terrorist attacks after 9/11. The federal government created grants to help cover the costs. Boston Police, for example, got funds and has three Lenco trucks, which cost about $300,000 apiece. The department recently disclosed the equipment in response to a City Council order.

Lenco declined an interview request but has said it grew its armored vehicle business in Western Mass. by helping police apply for grants aimed at combating terrorism.

The wave of terrorism some feared never materialized, Crockford said, and almost two decades later "the reality is that military-style equipment in the hands of police departments is used most frequently in routine, day-to-day, war-on-drugs policing."

That's what records indicated when the ACLU of Massachusetts sued and won the release of SWAT team documents from the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council in 2015.

Dennis Andre, team leader of the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council's SWAT unit, closes the rear door of a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dennis Andre, team leader of the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council's SWAT unit, closes the rear door of a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Still, some police who use Lenco's armored trucks say they're misunderstood.

On a recent morning in Bridgewater, Dennis Andre — the team leader and driver for the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council's 30-town SWAT unit — showed a Lenco vehicle to WBUR. The muscular, 8-ton BearCat, as the model is called, can intimidate, Andre said, but "that's just the ballistic capabilities. That's why it looks clunky and why it looks massive."

Each window is 3 inches thick.

"I think sometimes there's just a misconception that it's a James Bond vehicle — that it has offensive capabilities, it comes out and has the ability to harm people," added Bridgewater Police Chief  Chris Delmonte, the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council's president.

It's true that the BearCat lacks built-in weapons. It's more like a fortress on wheels than the kind of thing 007 would drive. But it does have a rotating roof hatch that can serve as a gun turret, plus other holes for shooting and a battering ram attachment for knocking down doors.

An armored vehicle may be designed for protection, but it can also do damage — kind of like the police, at large. So, at a time when law enforcement's reputation isn't bulletproof, there is renewed attention on a truck that is.

A Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, shared among 30 towns in the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, resides at Bridgewater Police headquarters (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, shared among 30 towns in the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, resides at Bridgewater Police headquarters (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on July 8, 2020.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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