United in their distaste for the item and its purchase, members of the Berkeley City Council Tuesday rebuked the police department for securing an armored tank.
The city did not pay for the Lenco BearCat; that came from the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which makes grants for equipment available to "high threat, high density" areas using homeland security funds. That was cold comfort to the council and a handful of speakers, who cautioned that gifts like a $170,000 tank from the federal government come with strings attached.
"These strings take the form of some of these agreements that violate some of our deeply held beliefs," Councilman Max Anderson said. "A weapon like this is designed to overwhelm a population."
Councilman Kriss Worthington had asked for a detailed report regarding the funding and purpose of the eight-ton vehicle.
Chief Michael Meehan told the council at last week's working session that the tank would allow officers to venture safely into a dangerous situation, such as the Oikos University shooting when Oakland officers used a similar vehicle to retrieve victims.
Berkeley, Albany and UC Berkeley police departments teamed up as the North County Tactical Working Group to apply for the grant. Berkeley police would have access to the tank, but the university would retain ownership. That alone worried Councilman Jesse Arreguin.
"That is troubling to me given that last November the univesity was involved with the Alameda County Sheriff in beating protesters," he said. "I'm very concerned about the lack of safeguards to ensure people will not be negatively affected by this armored vehicle simply for exercising their First Amendment rights."
Arreguin proposed that for the future, all applications for equipment using Security Initiative funds come before the council. The council learned of the tank grant only after CopWatch, a community organization, filed a Public Records Act request.
Misinformation peppered comments by speakers. One man lamented that as the first city to acquire a tank, Berkeley would set a poor example to the rest of the nation. In fact, at least 20 cities already have them, including Livermore, Fremont, and Oakland.
Others called the police chief into question for side-stepping the council. But city departments routinely apply for and receive grants without seeking the council's blessing. Only when a grant seeks matching funds or staff time are the applicants required to ask permission of the panel, city manager Christine Daniels said.
The tank is not equipped with guns, Police Chief Michael Meehan told a last week.
"The emergency vehicle has no offensive capability," he said.
Councilwoman Linda Maio called the purchase "a misstep."
"It's pretty clear with the wars winding down, this is just a way to keep weapons producers fat and happy," she said, "offering local jurisdictions these big tanks."