Debate heats up over armored vehicle for Bloomington police

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Public meetings over the purchase of an armored vehicle for Bloomington police ended with Black Lives Matter Bloomington walking out Tuesday night.

The argument has drawn heated debates during a series of public meetings over the purchase. Bloomington police want to purchase an armored vehicle, the BearCat sold by Lenco, for the Critical Incident Response Team to use during high risk situations where gunfire may be involved. The vehicle costs nearly a quarter million dollars and is a Ford F550 with plated armor. It would be funded by a public safety income tax.

Officers argue it's about safety for everyone, while opponents have argued the vehicle is too militarized, disproportionately affects those who are marginalized and the process for purchasing it has lacked transparency.

"We said we could have done a better job of talking more before about this vehicle, but we are talking now about the vehicle," Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff said.

The police department last had an armored vehicle in 2012. Diekhoff said they're lucky nothing has happened since, but that his officers need more protection.

According to a timeline released by the city, in 2015 there was discussion about a military vehicle but a decision to not proceed. In July 2016, the police chief sent an email to the city controller updating the five year capital plan, adding an armored vehicle to the public safety LIT budget for 2019. In December 2016, an email from the controller shows an updated overall city capital plan, including a police requested move of the vehicle purchase from 2019 to 2018.

The city attorney said the money, designated for capital expenditure, was originally identified for a building project at police headquarters. However when it went over budget, it was decided to scrap the project and put the funds toward the vehicle.

According to the city's timeline, in March 2017, price quotes were received from Lenco. And in June the acceptance of proposal was signed by the police chief at the direction of the controller.

Earlier this month, Chief Diekhoff announced the purchase at an annual public safety meeting. Diekhoff said no money has been expended at this point, though.

"All of this is being done legally and appropriately to purchase, to deploy," Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said. "Other factors that are important are what kind of rules govern the use of the vehicle and we'll be talking about those."

Black Lives Matter Bloomington has spoken out at public meetings over the purchase. Organizers said they have now sent a list of demands to city officials.

"To open investigation, to release all the documents related to it, for the police to seek out alternatives to present to the public to halt the process until everyone has an opportunity to weigh in," Vauhxx Booker, an organizer for Black Lives Matter Bloomington, said.

The letter demands a halt of the purchase, the release of all documents, research materials and communications regarding the purchase, that at least two alternative vehicle options that are non-militarized are provided by the end of March, that a standing committee on public safety is formed to investigate the purchase and that public timelines for the completion of demands are provided

The letter states in part, "The onus for reparation should fall squarely upon those who failed the public, due to a lack of transparency, and failure to produce suitable alternatives to the public for discourse."

Following a public meeting hosted by the Board of Public Safety on the purchase Tuesday, there was an open house meeting. Booker said the group tried to converse at the latter meeting, but ultimately decided to walk out.

"We weren't willing to participate in kind of a publicity tour for this vehicle with no meaningful discourse," he said.

There is another open house style meeting planned for Thursday.

The mayor said one of his fundamental jobs is public safety. He plans to make a recommendation by the end of March.

There are at least eight other police departments in Central Indiana with some form of an armored vehicle.