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Redwood City council gives police green light to purchase armored rescue vehicle

The estimated cost of the vehicle is $325,000.
Bearcat Armored Rescue Vehicle. This armored vehicle is similar to a vehicle the RCPD will own. Courtesy Matti Blume/Wikimedia Commons.

Council members voted 6-1 to approve the Redwood City Police Department's request to possess an armored rescue vehicle during a city council meeting last week, with Vice Mayor Lissette Espinosa-Garnica as the lone dissenter.

The vehicle would be purchased and owned by the Port of Redwood City using Port grants and funds, according to Port Executive Director Kristine Zortman, who spoke at the Monday, May 22 council meeting. Redwood City Police would be authorized to possess and operate the vehicle. 

Port Executive Director Kristine Zortman said the proposed armored rescue vehicle would be an asset to the port because it could be used to help first responders deploy resources in an emergency. 

The Port of Redwood City was designated by FEMA as a federal staging area for the South San Francisco Bay region for its ability to withstand natural disasters. An armored rescue vehicle could be utilized by FEMA first responders, said Zortman. As the only deep-water port in the South Bay Area, the Port is a "critical hub" to keep resources flowing in case of a catastrophic event. 

"We need to make sure that the resources that are coming to this region via the water are continuing to be maintained and safe so we can deploy them to the people that need them the most here in the region," Zortman said at last week’s meeting. 

The $325,000 armored rescue vehicle would be funded primarily using $6 million in grants awarded to the Port of Redwood City through FEMA's Port Grant Security Program. The port will pay for the remaining quarter of the cost with its reserved funds and police will pay for annual maintenance— about $2,500. 

"I'm glad we have the deep water port, I'm glad we're in the position we're in that we can do this for the rest of the Bay Area but it comes with huge responsibility and I think arming ourselves and preparing ourselves not only with effective training but proper tools is the only way that we hope to succeed in a crisis situation or an emergency situation," said Council member Diane Howard, who approved Redwood City Police's request to own an armored vehicle. 

Redwood City Police Capt. Ashley Osborne said the vehicle would be used by the Redwood City Police Department to support police in handling natural disasters, like wildfires and flooding. He pointed out how an armored rescue vehicle could have helped address the impacts of flooding in Redwood City after last winter's atmospheric river

"What this is really about for the police department is mobility and protection. These vehicles transport people quickly and safely through unsecured areas and challenging road conditions. It can also be used for evacuations of civilians and first responders," said Osborne. "It's not a tank, it's not designed for military use and it's not weaponized."

Osborne said the vehicle could also be used to support officers and transport people to safety in potentially violent situations, such as responding to an active shooter or a "high risk" warrant service. The ARV model requested by police, Lenco Bearcat G3, would primarily be used to "provide ballistic protection to occupants inside," according to the ordinance reviewed by the council in last week's meeting. It is equipped with loudspeakers that police said would allow officers to communicate with the barricaded subject from a closer distance, while remaining protected from threats.

The Redwood City Police Department is currently authorized to use four other similar armored rescue vehicles in four San Mateo County cities– Daly City, Burlingame, Belmont and San Mateo. Currently, Osborne said even though police are authorized to use the vehicles, coordinating access to them is difficult and adds to the department's ability to respond readily in an emergency. Osborne said it's not uncommon to wait up to an hour to acquire an armored rescue vehicle and having one in Redwood City would cut response time in half. 

"If equipment has to come from somewhere else in the county… that requires a certain amount of coordination. This increases response times and creates challenges," said Osborne. 

Military use report 

Last week’s request was part of the council's annual review of the Redwood City Police Department's military use report

Assembly Bill 481, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in September 2021, requires law enforcement to document the existence and use of all military equipment in their possession. In addition to submitting an annual report, agencies are required to get approval before acquiring any new equipment. 

According to the department's report, it currently owns seven of the 14 types of military equipment designated in AB 481 and is authorized to use eight types in total. It spent $141,701 on military equipment between May 2022 and April 2023, using 0.3% of the department's $52 million budget. 

Vice Mayor Lissette Espinosa-Garnica said they are concerned about authorizing more equipment before further fleshing out how military equipment is used by the department. Espinosa-Garnica called for more "rigor" in collecting data concerning the demographics with which SWAT interacts.

"Overall, I would like more transparency on this topic and for the equity impacts to be more fleshed out for next time," said Espinosa-Garnica. "I think it goes hand-in-hand with this and basically the policies that guide us and how well we do data gathering and ensuring no community is receiving disparate brunt of our actions." 

Community feedback

May 25 marked the third anniversary of George Floyd's death. Some community members pointed out the what they called the hypocrisy of the police department asking to acquire an armored rescue vehicle just three years after it returned one it previously owned to the military base from which it came as a reaction to Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. 

"It is disappointing and troubling to see this request for a new vehicle that is substantially along the same lines no matter how it is described. In protests around the country, in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis and others… we saw police use vehicles of these kinds as a tool for attacking and suppressing protestors," said Clara Jackel, who while is a member of Redwood City's Police Advisory Committee, did not speak in that capacity. 

"Police departments that use military equipment are more likely to kill civilians than those that have not been militarized," said Erica Wang, a member of Peninsula's Anti-Racism Coalition. "An armored rescue vehicle is not a civilian car. This is not a tool of de-escalation. It is a military vehicle which escalates panic and fear in the community, especially communities that have experienced racial trauma by the hands of law enforcement." 

Yet, the majority of community members were supportive of Redwood City Police's request to obtain an armored rescue vehicle. 

"I have always been impressed by the services provided by our police department. However, for police to continue to do the superb job that they do now, we as a community must support them with the equipment they need, including the military equipment and armored rescue vehicle," said Martha Cullimore, a Redwood Shores resident.

The council approved the request, citing the opportunity to have an armored rescue vehicle at the Port for Bay Area public safety. 

Mayor Jeff Gee said he believed more work needed to be done around developing policies for when it will be deployed. 

"This is a defensive tool, not an offensive tool and I think the policy needs to be refreshed and updated for when [the armored rescue vehicle] is used," Gee said. "But I am very supportive of making sure you have the right tools for the right situations and that officers are able to go home safely and to protect our community."


Avery Luke

About the Author: Avery Luke

Avery Luke, a Los Altos native, is a reporter at the Redwood City Pulse. She was formerly a reporter at KPFA Radio in Berkeley. Avery is also a newscast writer at KTVU FOX 2 and holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from DePaul University in Chicago.
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