Local agencies questioned over request for military-style vehicle
RED WING — Goodhue County and Red Wing law enforcement personnel insist that the proposed purchase of a $325,000 military-grade vehicle is crucial for public safety, but some here are raising concerns about using taxpayer money to "militarize" local law enforcement agencies.
The vehicle Lyle Lorenson, chief deputy of the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office, and Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman want to buy is a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or Bearcat — which recently created national headlines when it was used to try to quell protestors in the streets of Ferguson, Mo.
An aging military-grade vehicle currently sits in the Law Enforcement Center garage in Red Wing, and the sheriff's office and police department say it needs to be replaced.
Red Wing lawyer Kent Laugen, who is running for Red Wing City Council, published a critical blog after last week's city council meeting that he says touched a nerve among the Tea Party, Libertarians, liberals and others political factions.
"It cuts across a lot of lines with issues of transparency, the perceived militarization of law enforcement and questions of spending," Laugen said Tuesday.
After Red Wing Council Administrator Kay Kuhlmann gave a brief overview at the end of the Aug. 26 meeting — it wasn't a publicly-noticed agenda item — a 10-minute debate ensued over whether the city council should support a future partnership that involves committing $24,800 from the city's 2015 budget.
While no formal action was taken, City Council President Lisa Bayley immediately said it wasn't a "good use of our money." City council candidate Peggy Rehder, who is running against Laugen in November, countered by arguing that citizen and officer safety "needs to come first."
City council member Mike Schultz's thoughts on the issue were conflicted.
"It's not the greatest thing in the world and the media has bashed it a little bit, but I also think about the (nuclear) plant, and (what) if it saves one citizen?" Schultz said. "It might sound like a huge amount of money, but good grief. All we have to do is have one thing go wrong here once and then people will say why didn't we do this?"
Lorenson, who didn't attend the city council meeting, was a founding member of the county's tactical unit in 1992. An old bread delivery truck functioned as its first mobile command center. He had risen to commander by the time the county obtained its current Peacekeeper vehicle at no cost from military surplus in 2002.
It's used about 20 times per year when serving high-risk warrants that may involve weapons, Lorenson said. For example, Lorenson personally drove it to Lake City in December 2011 to safely evacuate residents during the incident when Lake City police officer Shawn Schneider was shot and killed while responding to a domestic dispute.
"If we have to evacuate someone, this provides us a safe way and cover," Lorenson said. "But it's getting old."
The Peacekeeper was made in the late 1970s. The county rebuilt its engine when it was acquired, but its range now appears to be quite limited.
Three years ago, Lorenson spun the tread off the tires when responding to Lake City at about 40 mph. During last month's regional training session at the nearby Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant, the Peacekeeper crawled "slow as molasses" up the hill west of Red Wing at just 20 mph, Lorenson said.
"That's a big concern," Rehder said. "We're not the typical city, because we have a nuclear facility we have to respond to if there's a situation out there. But I think making this sound like any type of comparison to Ferguson is grossly unfair."
Lorenson said Laugen's complaint was the first "negative response" he's heard against the county's tactical unit since its inception 22 years ago. He feels the Bearcat could prove especially useful because includes special detection equipment for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents.
Despite the concerns being expressed, neither Pohlman nor Lorenson are having second thoughts about their push to acquire the Bearcat, which likely wouldn't be finalized until 2016, when grant recipients are selected by federal officials.
"I understand the concern that citizens have but … I think it's a good piece of equipment when used properly," Pohlman said. "All of our tools are basically defensive in nature. If we do ever use something as an offensive manner, it's because it's a dangerous situation and a judge has authorized it."
Added Lorenson: "We never want to put a price tag on officers' and public safety … but it's expensive. What is a life worth? This truly is a public safety issue."