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Armored vehicles' rising use by police raises community concerns

AP | May 10, 2007 

PITTSBURGH After six people were shot in the city's Homewood neighborhood in less than 24 hours, Pittsburgh police rolled in with a 20-ton armored truck with a blast-resistant body, armored rotating roof hatch and gunports.

No guns or drugs were seized and no arrests made during the sweep in the $250,000 armored vehicle, paid for with Homeland Security money. But the show of force sent a message.

Whether it was the right message is a matter of debate.

With scores of police agencies large and small buying armored vehicles at Homeland Security expense, some criminal-justice experts warn that their use in fighting everyday crime could do more harm than good and represents a post-Sept. 11 militaristic turn away from the more cooperative community-policing approach promoted in the 1990s.

When the armored truck moved through the Homewood neighborhood late last year, people came out of their homes to take a look. Some were offended.

"This is really the containment of crime, not the elimination, because to eliminate it you have to address some of the social problems," said Rashad Byrdsong, a community activist.

Law-enforcement agencies say the growing use of the vehicles helps ensure police have the tools they need to deal with hostage situations, heavy gunfire and acts of terrorism.

But police are also putting the equipment to more routine use, such as the delivering of warrants to suspects believed to be armed.

"We live on being prepared for 'what if?' " said Pittsburgh Sgt. Barry Budd, a member of the SWAT team.

Critics say the appearance of armored vehicles in high-crime neighborhoods may only increase tensions by making residents feel as if they are under siege.

Most departments do not have "a credible, justifiable reason for buying these kinds of vehicles," but find them appealing because they "tap into that subculture within policing that finds the whole military special-operations model culturally intoxicating," said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and an expert on police militarization. The military-style approach "runs a high risk of being very counterproductive."

Peter Moskos, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said police departments would be better off hiring people with different language skills if the goal is to root out terrorism.

"It does worry me when cops try to be more militarylike, because an armored car is not going to stop a terrorist," he said.

In Pittsburgh, a city of about 370,000 with pockets of mostly drug- or gang-related crime, the armored truck made by Lenco Industries Inc. of Pittsfield, Mass., has been used about four times a month, Budd said.

He said the vehicle was bought primarily to be used in hostage situations and when officers are wounded. On Sunday, the truck was deployed when Pittsburgh's SWAT team responded to a report of an armed man holed up in a home. The standoff ended peacefully.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, police in Lexington, Ky., a city of about 280,000, have obtained two armored vehicles and two military helicopters acquired from the Pentagon.

Police Chief Anthany Beatty said the equipment is used mostly to fight daily crime but is also meant to protect the area's "significant military assets" from terrorists.

Lexington's SWAT team takes its armored truck out on every call, including the serving of warrants to armed suspects.

Police in Austin, Texas home to about 720,000 bought Lenco's smaller armored vehicle, the BearCat, with a $250,000 Homeland Security grant. Lt. Vic White, who heads the department's tactical operations, said it is deployed every time the SWAT team is called out.

Robert Castelli, chairman of criminal justice at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., said if he were a police chief of a force with an armored vehicle, he would order it sent out on every SWAT call.

Castelli said armored vehicles can send a positive message that police are in control of the situation and make police better prepared to deal with more heavily armed criminals, as well as terrorists.

Lenco Industries President Len Light said Homeland Security grants have significantly boosted sales but would not provide precise figures. He said the company has sold hundreds of armored vehicles to police nationwide, and has annual sales of about $40 million.


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