An armored vehicle paid for with a federal grant was useful during February’s snowfall, including as a way to transport fire and police personnel given the task of digging out fire hydrants.

An armored vehicle paid for with a federal grant was useful during February’s snowfall, including as a way to transport fire and police personnel given the task of digging out fire hydrants. (Photo: Cambridge Police Department)

A report that Cambridge police have sniper teams, with up to a dozen snipers to put atop buildings during visits by dignitaries, was received with both dismay and gratitude Monday by city councillors, with less attention paid to confirmation that the city foots the bill for security during those visits.

Councillor Nadeem Mazen was rattled by news – needing more context, a police spokesman said – that the city has its own sniper teams, along with a full-time bomb squad and other units and equipment smacking of terrorism-level violence. The bomb squad was voted in by the council in December 2013, only a couple of weeks before Mazen’s first term began.

“I can’t imagine an explanation that would make me comfortable with this type of team. I can’t understand why we wouldn’t borrow this from a state authority or another city when we periodically need it,” Mazen said, referring to the sniper teams and suggesting he would ask for more information about them. “Once we have that context, I do hope we bring this up again, because I find that state of affairs completely unsatisfactory.”

“I’m very much concerned about the militarization of police forces nationwide and federal money being spent that way,” he said.

Craig Kelley, whose council Public Safety Committee ran the hearing and supplied the report to which Mazen reacted, agreed. “I share his concerns about militarization of police and I encourage us to have these discussions exactly here, where people can hear us and share their views,” Kelley said. “The more we can talk about this openly, the better off we all are.”

Big events, basic safety

Kelley called the Dec. 16 hearing after being surprised by the level of police presence during an October visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Harvard. He wondered how Cambridge police plan for and react to extraordinary events such as the December “Black Lives Matter” protests, organized and attended by people outraged over the killing of black people by police and others nationwide and a subsequent weak reaction by law enforcement officials. The protests were improvised, and police had to act to keep protesters safe as they walked through and lay down among cars in Harvard Square and throughout the city.

“I’ve had a number of people complement me on how while CPD has handled the various Black Lives Matter protests that have occurred here,” Kelley wrote to constituents this week. “It turns out, we put a lot of effort and resources into being able to address these big events while still providing basic safety services that people expect.”

Thanks to the presence of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is more or less a steady stream of famous, important and potentially threatened people coming to Cambridge.

There were more than 20 visits by dignitaries such as foreign heads of state, national leaders, military leaders and religious leaders last year in Cambridge, including from the Dalai Lama, President Barack Obama and Biden, said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police, and all “can result in significant resource demands for the Cambridge Police and the city.”

The approximate cost for Biden’s visit in October was $23,000, excluding the department’s normal, day-to-day costs, Warnick said, noting that the expense was “on the higher end” of the year’s extraordinary security demands for visitors.

Footing the bill

When Obama and Biden come to town, the Secret Service demands and directs certain levels of security, but it’s Cambridge that pays, officials said.

“We’re a city that has people come that are very important and need protection, and we’re expected to provide that protection. Sometimes the protection we provide is supplemented by the Secret Service, the State Police or whoever, but we still have to provide a base level of protection,” Kelley said.

When we provide this stuff we do it on our dime, and it can be a very expensive dime at that. But it’s our responsibility. We don’t really have a choice, either. The Secret Service says, ‘This is what you do. We want this shut down, we want officers here, we want the fire department there – and you guys pay for it.’

“Turns out we’re protecting some really important people, and when you do that you need a lot of very impressive-looking equipment, including the BearCat and sniper teams and all this other stuff that we have,” Kelley said.

The BearCat – a Ford F-550 retrofitted by a company called Lenco into an 18,000-pound, 10-person armored vehicle – arrived in the city in September and was introduced to the community at that month’s Danehy Park Day. While it’s a fearsome-looking vehicle with high-tech capabilities such as thermal imaging, radiation detection and its own air supply and is to be used in “any potential situations involving dangerous subjects and/or hazardous environments,” Warnick said, it has less lethal uses as well. With its four-wheel drive and high undercarriage, it can maneuver through high water during flash flooding and is good in severe snowstorms.

When blizzards shut down city roads last month, the BearCat carried police officers and firefighters to dig out fire hydrants, Warnick said.

It also came at no cost to the city. The BearCat – which come in various models but has a base price of about $189,000 – was paid for entirely by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security through the Urban Areas Security Initiative, Warnick said. The other communities in the Initiative that can request use of the BearCat are Boston, Brookline, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, Revere and Quincy. It is also the initiative that  decided on the purchase, rather than Cambridge alone, he said.

The Cambridge Police Department is allotted $49.3 million in the city’s total operating budget for fiscal year 2015, or 9 percent of the budget, up from the previous year’s $48 million. The current year includes $733,170 in pay for four patrol officers and one patrol sergeant for the new Explosive Ordnance Unit, and $100,000 has been added “for sustaining all tactical team operations.”

Ancillary duties

Warnick expressed concern that council discussion used terms without their full context and noted that the police department’s Special Response Team – in place since the 1970s at a consistent level of about 20 officers – is made up of specially trained officers from various units within the department who are on call 24 hours a day to respond to “any major crisis within the city. Their primary mission is to resolve high-risk incidents, including hostage situations, high-risk search and arrest warrants, barricaded suspects and any other situation deemed appropriate.”

“[The team] is an ancillary duty,” Warnick said, and so are its “over watch” teams that may be assigned “to provide added security for personnel on the ground by stationing themselves above a crowd or event.” According to Kelley’s report, when highest-level government officials visit, the Secret Service brings their own special forces such as sniper teams to patrol buildings.

Councillor Tim Toomey, who was at the Public Safety Committee hearing, called the department’s training and equipment “somewhat comforting.”

In his comments Monday, he focused less on visits by dignitaries and more on how the department’s assets could be used to keep residents safe:

We wish we didn’t need some of this type of equipment, but this is a new day and age, unfortunately, and what is happening all around the world. This is a well-known and probably attractive city for a kind of trouble people would like to stir from the outside. I’m not happy that this is the world we are living in, but the safety of our citizens is paramount to me and all of us in this room. I am happy our public safety officials have the necessary tools to protect us, and I will sleep a little easier at night knowing that.

At the 10-year mark since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government had dispensed about $40 billion for local emergency preparedness, with $500 million going to Massachusetts, The Boston Globe said in a series of articles describing the equipment bought as being little used.

Militarization

The American Civil Liberties Union, though, says the equipment is being used too much – in day-to-day policing for which it is inappropriate and destructive. It released a report in June that found plenty to criticize, and an accompanying press release from Boston’s ACLU chapter called out directly the 2011 killing of former Cantabrigian Eurie Stamps Sr., 68, by Framingham police serving a search warrant for someone else’s drugs.

The local ACLU had no direct criticism of Cambridge police.

Kelly walked a line between what his fellow councillors saw as either militarization or enhancements to public safety.

“If the Cambridge police think they need X-many overwatch teams – which are really sniper teams, so we should make sure we’re not calling things by names that aren’t generally understood – if the president or vice-president of Liberia comes, and the town is full of people coming on a regular basis, I’m okay with that,” Kelley said. “What I’m not okay with is our not discussing this on a regular basis. I want to make sure we’re not running a risk, as I think other places are, of having a police force that moves too far into the militarization sphere.”

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