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  • The politics of police militarization in Norman: the BEARCAT emails

    The politics of police militarization in Norman: the BEARCAT emails

    The City of Norman’s plans to purchase a BEARCAT military vehicle hit a roadblock in July 2015 when it was brought before City Council on the consent docket. Due to low attendance by council members, the vote was delayed until the August 2015 council meeting. Still lacking public support a month later, the council voted to postpone the purchase indefinitely.

    Since then, NPD and certain city council members have tried to garner support for the purchase through public meetings, electoral campaigns, and through volunteer law enforcement groups such as the Citizens Police Academy Alumni of Norman (CPAAN).

    Emails obtained through an Open Records Act request show that CPAAN board members worked with NPD staff and members of the Citizens Public Safety Sales Tax Oversight Committee to produce letters and materials endorsing the proposed purchase of a Lenco Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck (BEARCAT).

    On August 2, 2015  CPAAN Director-at-Large, Bill Scanlon–also an appointed member of the Citizen’s Public Safety Sales Tax Oversight Committee–sent emails to fellow CPAAN board members endorsing the purchase of the BEARCAT. Scanlon authored the decision paper. Emails show Scanlon also solicited feedback from NPD prior to sending out the endorsement letter.

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    In late August 2015, Humphrey contacted Karen Amendola, a behavioral scientist at the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, asking if there existed any research on how the presence of armored vehicles might impact community oriented policing. In the email, Humphrey singles out “a vocal minority” of residents opposing the BEARCAT purchase:

    We have secured funding to purchase a Lenco Bearcat. Unfortunately the item has been pulled from the councils agenda twice, due to a vocal minority. There is a small group of citizens (very small) whose only purpose is to cause chaos within local government. They have no desire to participate in any of the civic organizations such as, citizens police academy or any other public safety initiatives. This small group is fighting this purchase because they do not believe that Norman will ever experience an active shooter incident. In the words of one specific member, “It aint going to happen in Norman.” I was trying to see if there was any research regarding armored vehicles, not military vehicles, dismiss a department’s ability to do community oriented policing.

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    Other high-ranking members at NPD also characterized the opposition as irrational radicals and liberals. When Lenco sales manager Jim Massery approached Police Captain Todd Gibson a few months later for an update on the political situation, the soon-to-retire Gibson complained, saying it’s all “liberal politics.”  In a reply to Massery, Gibson said, “I’ve had about all the liberal soft head stuff I can take.”

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    In late-August/early-September 2015, a local car dealership owner, Chris Mayes, approached a city council member as well as police chief Keith Humphrey to notify the city officials he had been soliciting bids from armored vehicle manufacturers other than Lenco.

    On September 15, 2015 Mayes wrote to Chief Humphrey:

    Here is the first bid I have received. I have a couple of others pending. Keep in mind that I have not negotiated or attempted to until I get the go ahead from you. So at this point I will get bids and forward to you. I would like to push them for lower prices but we need to be able to close the contract to get lower price and at this point I don’t believe we can.

    Ward 3 Council member Robert Castleberry wrote to Humphrey suggesting Mayes could get the city a better deal from another manufacturer, Armored Group LLC. Castleberry wrote NPD staff, encouraging them to consider the bid Mayes was proposing. Castleberry suggested a deal brokered by Mayes could pass savings on to the city:

    I had a chance to visit with Mr. Mayes about this last night. He is aware that it is forfeit and seizure funds. He believes that because he is in the car business he can get us the same type of vehicle for a much better price and pass that savings directly on to the city. We would be buying retail and he would be buying wholesale. I know council has not decided whether we want to purchase such a vehicle regardless of the price yet, but I would appreciate it if you could get Mr. Mayes the specifications of the Bearcat and let him see what he can do. This would free up those funds to buy additional equipment. Also if we have not already purchased the ATV vehicle yet, I think we should let him bid on those as well since he appears wiling to support the police department.

    Humphrey and the city’s legal staff collaborated on a response to Mayes explaining that state and local laws require a competitive bidding process for such purchases. As noted in their official response to Mayes, the manufacturer must have a “Sole Source Vendor” status approved by the US State Department to be exempt from the competitive bidding requirement.

    Following that email, Chief Humphrey consulted Lenco Sales Manager, Jim Massery about the alternatives proposed by Mayes and under consideration by Castleberry. Massery wrote back a scathing letter on Mayes’ proposal.

    Massery’s blunt response highlights the multiple military deployments of BEARCAT vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and states that every branch of the US military “owns fleets of BEARCATS.”

    In his August 28 email to Chief Humphrey, Massery compares Mayes to the town tailor trying to broker a deal on bullet-proof vests because he knows how to sew.

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    Mayes replies back saying he will continue to help move the purchase forward. He makes use of “war on police” rhetoric to urge Humphrey to continue the political fight. Mayes blames then-mayor Cindy Rosenthal and other council members for fueling the political battle. On Sept. 22 2015, Mayes wrote:

    I will help in any way you need in the future. The bigger issue, I believe you are fighting a difficult battle with a city council and mayor, many of whom have spoken privately and publicly that they do not want to and are concerned with militarizing the police department. I do not share that opinion.

    My grandfather was a Highway patrolman and the Police Chief in Sulphur Oklahoma. I know that our officers are being hammered in the press and I believe we have a “war on police” taking place. Our men need to be protected at all costs. I hope you don’t give up the fight.

    At the same time Mayes was trying to broker deals between NPD and Armored Group LLC., he went on the offensive, attempting to oust mayor Cindy Rosenthal with complaints and lawsuits alleging ethics violations.

    On August 28 2015, Mayes filed a civil lawsuit in Cleveland County court alleging that Rosenthal had violated Norman’s ethics ordinances by allowing her name to appear on announcements for a fundraising event for Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker’s re-election campaign. Mayes filed the suit shortly after city council voted to postpone indefinitely NPD’s BEARCAT purchase. Judge Jeff Virgin ruled to dismiss about a month after the filing.

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    Later, in December 2015 Mayes donated ATVs to the Cleveland County Sheriff’s department. According to a NewsOK article, the donated  ATVs were valued at $15,900.

    Mayes’ contacts at Armored Group LLC provided him with video showing the chemical munitions capability of their Balistics Armored Tactical Transport (BATT) vehicles.

    By October 2015 NPD officials were optimistic that the City Council would soon bring the BEARCAT issue back to a vote. Emails show NPD again consulted the sales team at Lenco, requesting talking-points and public relations assistance in dealing with a contentious political climate and public anxiety over police militarization.

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    In a email from November 2015, Lenco sales manager, Jim Massery, advises Chief Humphrey and Captain Gibson to emphasize the need for preparedness in the “Global War on Terror.”

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    Lenco also provided NPD with a press kit, including photographs, news articles, power point presentations, and testimonials in an effort to better market the BEARCAT to elected leaders.

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    The press kit, along with other persuasive materials, included videos described by Massery as “proprietary,” “classified,” and “not for public consumption.”

    One of those videos is a demonstration of the gas injection unit–an upgrade feature capable of deploying chemical munitions, such as military-grade CS gas.  CS gas was banned for use in warfare by the United Nations Convention on Chemical Weapons in 1993.  The United States still allows the military grade chemical munition to be used in domestic settings, warrant service, and for containing anti-government protests.

    In April and May 2016, Massery again followed up with Chief Humphrey. Humphrey indicated that new council members would be seated soon, saying, “Just had an election and the majority are very supportive of the Bearcat.”

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    Since then, another election cycle has come and gone. Two new council members will be sworn in later this month.

    Earlier releases from Norman Leaks confirmed that the Norman Police Department was shopping around for an MRAP military surplus vehicle as early as October 2013. One document shows NPD intended to use the MRAP for drug interdiction.

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    An archive of MRAP and BEARCAT documents obtained through Open Records Act requests is available at our website here.

    Civil Asset Forfeiture documents are available here.

    In March 2016, Norman Leaks published a video compilation including excerpts from council meetings and candidate forums regarding the BEARCAT as it became a campaign issue in that year’s election cycle.

     

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