September 11, 2019

County To Vote on Armored Vehicle Purchase

MERCER COUNTY PURCHASE?: The freeholders are meeting Thursday to vote on the purchase of this $309,000 armored vehicle for the County, but many local groups and individuals are voicing opposition and urging citizens to attend the meeting and contact freeholders to express their disapproval.

By Donald Gilpin

The Mercer County freeholders are scheduled to vote Thursday, September 12 on the $309,000 purchase of an armored vehicle for the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, but many local residents and organizations have voiced opposition to the proposed acquisition as an unwise use of taxpayer funds and a troubling militarization of law enforcement.

Andrew Koontz, the only one of the seven freeholders who has publicly expressed opposition to the purchase, described his “strong visceral reaction to a military-style vehicle that the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office would own and operate. It brings to mind militarization of local police departments that we saw in Baton Rouge (2016) and Ferguson (2014).”

He continued, recalling the TV footage of the disturbances in Ferguson and Baton Rouge, “I saw the equipment they were using, and I had a reaction as an elected official. Someone voted for that. I had a strong reaction that this is not the kind of policing I like to see at the local level.”

In a phone conversation on Monday, Koontz went on to explain his understanding of the dangerous work done by the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (SERT), traditionally known as the Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team. “They have their lives on the line. I understand that,” Koontz said, but he noted that local law enforcement has access to state police armored vehicles, one of which was brought to Princeton but not used in March 2018, when police were in a prolonged standoff with a man with a gun at Panera Bread on Nassau Street.

“Military buildup is the wrong way to go,” Koontz said, urging instead a focus on gun control. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting weapons out of the hands of the wrong people.”

Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler issued a statement Tuesday in support of the purchase, claiming a limited but crucial use for the armored vehicle. “Our concern is for the safety of our citizens and officers during a critical incident,” he wrote. “Let’s be clear, the vehicle to be purchased by the Sheriff’s Office is NOT a tank and NOT an assault vehicle. It is an armor protected vehicle that will only be used for extremely dangerous situations such as a sniper, hostage negotiations, bomb threats, mass shooting incidents, active shooter incidents at a school, the threat of a dangerous felon, and for protection during dangerous situations. A similar vehicle clearly saved the lives of officers and local residents during the recent active shooter standoff in Philadelphia.”

Princeton resident John Heilner has been voicing opposition to the armored vehicle purchase and urging citizens to attend the freeholders meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, September 12 at the McDade County Administration Building, 640 South Broad Street in Trenton. He has urged residents to contact members of the Board of Freeholders, to come to the meeting, and to  speak out during the public comment period or to hold signs showing their opposition to the purchase.

“The upfront cost and the annual maintenance and training costs should be put to better uses by increasing Mercer County Community College financial aid, plugging holes in the social services safety net that has been decimated by the current federal administration, or fixing County roads and bridges,” Heilner wrote in an email. He went on to point out recent County property tax increases of 25.4 percent over the past 10 years.

In a letter to the freeholders, Heilner stated, “Many studies, by both academic and law enforcement organizations, have found that militarization of our police and sheriff’s forces are counter-productive — especially in tense situations. Deescalation techniques are much more effective.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, at a Monday press conference, noted legitimate concerns from many Princeton residents about the County’s proposed purchase and said that she shared those concerns.

“It’s paying money for a piece of machinery that everybody agrees would be used rarely, or not at all, and in the rare case that we did need to use it, there’s the opportunity to borrow it,” she said.   

She continued, “There’s a growing concern about the militarization of local law enforcement and legitimate questions about whether that makes us safer or if it might do the opposite in the long run by making it harder to create those bonds of trust that are essential for effective policing.”

Among the groups in opposition, members of Not In Our Town (NIOT) from Lawrenceville, Trenton, West Windsor, and Princeton issued a statement criticizing “a tendency for civilian police and sheriff’s departments to use military style tactics, weapons, and vehicles … at a financial and social cost to the community.”

Warning that “once military-style weapons systems have been purchased, there is an incentive to prove the value of the purchase by using the equipment,” the NIOT statement proposes that “the monies requested for this armored tactical vehicle instead be invested in programs that benefit the people of Mercer County.”

In an appeal to the freeholders on September 3, NIOT also joined with 11 other local organizations to oppose the purchase of the armored vehicle. Citing the proposed purchase as “irresponsible and dangerous” for Mercer County and listing seven reasons to support their claim, the groups included NAACP (Trenton branch), the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, Fair & Welcoming Coalition of Mercer County, Coalition for Peace Action, Princeton YWCA, STAND Central NJ, Hope Rises Up, Lawrence Citizen Activists, the Central Jersey Democratic Socialists, and the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice.