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Not a tank: Town OKs BearCat purchase after community discussion

Officials assuaged residents’ concerns about militarizing the town after an email chain erroneously described the armored vehicle as “a tank”

lenco bearcat.jpg

A BearCat from Lenco Armored Vehicles.

Lenco Armored Vehicles

By Kurt Bresswein
The Express-Times

EASTON, Pa. — Easton is getting its own armored vehicle to protect police and the public, primarily during crises involving gunfire.

The city council on Wednesday night unanimously approved the $171,129 purchase of a 2006 Lenco BearCat G2 for the police department from Lenco Armored Vehicles in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The decision followed a spirited discussion in which residents sought details about the vehicle, which was described erroneously in an email chain Wednesday morning as a tank, said Downtown resident Susan Ravitz.

“There are many people in the community that are distressed about militarizing our city,” she told the council.

Easton and other Lehigh Valley communities have relied on a BearCat belonging to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, and which Bethlehem has stored and maintained, officials said Wednesday night. But that vehicle is beginning to show signs of disrepair, Easton police Chief Carl Scalzo said.

“The concern is when that vehicle can no longer be repaired they’re not going to replace it,” he said.

The BearCat is designed to stop rounds, including bullets fired by a rifle, of up to .50 caliber, Scalzo said. Rounds fired during a December 2017 standoff in Bethlehem Township damaged the glass of the Bethlehem BearCat, but it was credited with saving the lives of police and citizens, authorities said at the time of that incident in which 62-year-old Marylouise Meixel-Moyer was shot to death by her son, who then killed himself.

The one Easton is looking to buy is refurbished, with a new engine and gearbox, and was previously used by the U.S. Department of Energy for nuclear power plant security, according to city police. It is not designed to be outfitted with weapons, Scalzo said in response to concerns raised by Ravitz, who also wanted to know if it can be outfitted with crowd-control gear to intimidate peaceful protesters.

“We have no intention of using it any different than we do now, which is just in those crisis situations where either we have an active shooter-type situation” or a high-risk individual, Scalzo said, noting its use will be based on a case-by-case threat assessment.

[RELATED: How to buy armored vehicles (eBook)]

Louisa Durkin, a volunteer with the Easton Environmental Advisory Council from Forks Township, urged city officials to delay the purchase until a needs assessment can be undertaken on other uses of the $171,129 that “promote resiliency and social and environmental justice.”

Scalzo told that delivery time on the vehicle is 12 months, so it’s important to get the order in now. He also said it will be available to surrounding communities when the city’s emergency response team is called out on assists, but it won’t be available for other departments to borrow. Mayor Sal Panto Jr. noted that the money is coming from the police department budget, not outside funding such as the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

“We see this vehicle used in drug-related raids, however it is also used in a mass shooting at a school, if there’s an active shooter anywhere,” Panto said. “I think the public saw the vehicle and heard the word tank. This vehicle has no weapons. It doesn’t have a cannon, it doesn’t have a turret. It’s not meant for that. It’s meant solely to protect the men and women of the Easton Police Department and the residents who find themselves in harm’s way.”

Councilman Ken Brown said he understands the concerns about the vehicle’s appearance: “But the most important thing is it’s not only for the police protection but it’s also for the public’s protection.”

City Councilman Roger Ruggles, who is chairman of council’s public safety committee, said a lot of thought went into how the city can replace the BearCat it uses now.

“The primary purpose of this is an active shooter situation,” he said, “so that it provides if you will cover for officers to get closer to the shooter without being exposed.”

Council also heard from West Ward resident Lance Wheeler, who said he heard about efforts to oppose the purchase “because this is affecting the Black and brown community. That’s not true.”

Wheeler said if police don’t have a vehicle like this when they need it, they’ll be accused of being ill-prepared. He also noted problems with drug dealing in his neighborhood and urged police to use the BearCat on patrol as a show-of-force deterrent.

“I don’t care what other people say, but I would love to see that thing ride down right now the 900 block of Ferry Street where we got about seven to eight houses that are making noise, blocking the sidewalks for residents that can’t even sit on their porch,” he said.

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