September 18, 2019

County Approves Armored Vehicle Purchase, Over Widespread Resistance and Questions

By Donald Gilpin

The Mercer County freeholders approved the purchase of an armored vehicle last Thursday, September 12, with Sheriff Jack Kemler emphasizing the need to keep officers safe and opponents warning against militarization of the police, erosion of public trust, and waste of funds needed elsewhere.

About 100 members of the public filled Room 211 of the McDade County Administration Building in Trenton at the meeting of the freeholder board, with more than 20 speakers voicing their opposition to the purchase.

The freeholders voted 4 to 2 in favor of the purchase for approximately $310,000, with Sam Frisby and Andrew Koontz casting the two negative votes. Frisby had declared earlier in the week that he would vote “yes,” but said that he had changed his mind after talking with many residents, especially from Trenton, who did not want the vehicle. 

The residents from throughout Mercer County who spoke against the purchase argued that the County could put the money to much better use for many different urgent needs. 

Kemler noted that the vehicle would be used only for protection in extremely dangerous situations, and stated, “Our concern is for the safety of our citizens and officers during a critical incident.”

In voicing his opposition earlier in the week, Koontz expressed his aversion to “militarization” of the police departments and pointed out that local law enforcement already has access to state police armored vehicles, one of which is based in Ewing.

Koontz recalled TV images of military equipment in the hands of local police during disturbances in Ferguson (2014) and Baton Rouge (2016) in urging that “military buildup is the wrong way to go.”

At a September 15 meeting of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) Koontz, looking forward, noted, “The task at hand is to look at the use policy for this vehicle and ensure that we won’t have the vehicle used for parades, or to intimidate the public, or to challenge the right to assembly. It’s a good idea to monitor the use of this vehicle.”

At the same meeting, County Executive Brian Hughes expressed his concerns with the vehicle purchase, but stated “The sheriff has to run his department the way he sees fit. This is not an ordinance. I cannot veto it.”

Hughes added that he had received a number of letters and phone calls from PCDO members and others, and that he expected the vehicle to be used only in dire emergencies. “I have ambivalence towards this vehicle,” he said.