The manhunt for suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had reached its climax. Tsarnaev, who eluded police for 17 hours after an early morning gunfight, had been located aboard a trailered boat in Watertown. The question was how to take him into custody.
“We had to assume he was heavily armed, based on what he’d done,” said Robert Duprey, a member of the State Police SWAT team. “If you approach on foot and he throws a bomb, you’re dead.”
Instead, police drove up to the vessel in a BearCat, a SWAT truck made by Lenco Armored Vehicles of Pittsfield that has been alternately heralded as an essential piece of safety equipment and derided as a waste of money.
The use of BearCat trucks during the search for Tsarnaev — at least nine of the vehicles prowled the streets of Watertown throughout the day — was “rewarding as a validation for us and our equipment,” said Len Light, Lenco’s chief executive.
Milton Police Chief Richard G. Wells Jr., who sits on the state’s Southeast Regional Homeland Security Advisory Council, called voting to buy one of the BearCats that was on the scene “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
But some critics remain unmoved by the trucks’s role in capturing Tsarnaev, who proved to be unarmed, and say the $250,000 vehicles are not necessary at the local level.
“The question is, do we want a militarized police force?” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “That’s what we saw in Watertown.”
Lenco’s BearCat and its $400,000 big brother, the BEAR, have 3-inch-thick windows, steel-plated frames, and are used by all four branches of the military. They are the most popular SWAT trucks in the United States and have been used in the response to many other emergencies, including the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last year.
But the role of a BearCat in catching an alleged terrorist represents a milestone for the company because concerns about terror attacks have driven Lenco’s law enforcement business over the past decade.
As part of its response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security launched the Urban Areas Security Initiative in 2003. The program awards grants to help “high-threat, high-density urban areas” prepare for “acts of terrorism,” according to its stated mission. But some grant money has been used to buy advanced equipment — including BearCats — in places that appear to be unlikely terror targets.
Police in the small city of Keene, N.H., for instance, received a fully funded BearCat last year. On its grant application, the city cited its annual pumpkin festival as a possible terror target, a claim US Senator Thomas Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, mocked in a December report by his office on the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The report concluded that many grant-funded purchases of Lenco trucks have been “boondoggles.”
Keene’s application also mentioned another possible target, the Clarence DeMar Marathon, which it said “has been held for the last 33 years and is an official qualifying race for the US Olympic Trials, as well as an official qualifying race for the Boston Marathon.”
Last month’s bombings at the Boston Marathon were a reminder that disaster can strike anywhere, Coburn said in an interview, but it is unrealistic to budget a BearCat for every town, he argued. Money spent on supplying cities like Keene would be better spent on intelligence, Coburn added.
The bombings also did not change Keene City Councilor Terry M. Clark’s belief that his community, with a population of about 23,000, has little need for a BearCat.
‘The question is, do we want a militarized police force? That’s what we saw in Watertown.’
“I think they’re a waste of money for small-town police departments,” said Clark, who voted against bringing the armored truck to Keene. “My opposition was that [Lenco was] going way too far and just running up their numbers. It’s arms dealing.”
Clark and other Lenco critics acknowledge the company’s vehicles serve a purpose but argue that few law enforcement agencies need bulletproof, blast-resistant trucks of their own. A single BearCat should be shared by many police departments, they contend.
Watertown police do not own a BearCat but share one with 53 other members of the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which covers 845 square miles. Other law enforcement agencies with BearCats also sent their vehicles to Watertown to help with the manhunt.
Sharing trucks can work, said Duprey, of the State Police, but having a local BearCat can make a difference in an emergency.
“You need a trained driver, and you need to physically get there,” said Duprey. “I’m not saying we should have 350-some-odd BearCats in the Commonwealth, but if it takes an hour to get there from a shared location, that extra 50 minutes that guys are waiting on the ground feels like forever.”Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.