An attempt by a city councilor to return the Keene Police Department’s armored vehicle, known as the BearCat, failed at Thursday night’s council meeting.
Also on Thursday, councilors heard a presentation on two new plans for a potential redesign of Wheelock Park, and gave final approval to a resolution opposing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Councilor Terry M. Clark’s request on the BearCat was considered shortly after comedian Stephen Colbert became the second in the past month to ridicule the city in a sketch about militarized police departments. Comedian John Oliver also joked about Keene’s BearCat in a segment on his HBO show in August.
On Aug. 19, Clark wrote a letter to Mayor Kendall W. Lane and members of the City Council, asking the city to withdraw from the 2011 Department of Homeland Security grant that gave them the Lenco BearCat.
But Lane tabled Clark’s request at Thursday’s meeting, accepting the letter as informational rather than passing it onto a council committee. Lane said he believed the issue had been debated enough over the past three years.
“The issue relating to the rescue vehicle commonly known as the BearCat has been considered twice by the City Council,” he said. “We don’t have any new information.”
Clark challenged Lane’s decision to table his letter, but the majority of the councilors sided with the mayor. Clark and councilors Emily P. Hague and Bettina A. Chadbourne voted against the move.
In an interview, Clark said national attention on Keene’s BearCat was giving the city a bad reputation.
“Recently, we’ve become a national laughingstock every time something comes up,” he said. “We don’t need this thing ... just give it back.”
Clark, a member of the council’s finance, organization and personnel committee, said the committee receives regular reports on the use of the vehicle, which was taken out four times so far this year for training purposes.
“It’s time to really ask the question, do we really want to have a militarized police department?” Clark told The Sentinel. “It’s just not worth the embarrassment.”
“It’s been two years now, and we really haven’t used it for our stated purposes,” said Clark, who had originally voted against accepting the $285,933 grant for the vehicle.
When writing the grant, Keene police said the vehicle could be useful during bad flooding, as it can go places a regular police cruiser cannot. Police had also said the BearCat could be of assistance if there was an emergency at a large community event such as the annual Pumpkin Festival, which draws tens of thousands of people.
The idea of using the vehicle to protect that festival was behind Oliver and Colbert’s satire, which they played out in the wake of violent protests in Ferguson, Mo.
“... As their application argued, ‘The terrorism threat is far-reaching and often unforeseen,’ and cited as a possible target, their annual Pumpkin Festival,” Oliver quipped to the audience on his television show “Last Week Tonight,” as a picture of the BearCat flashed on-screen. “Good luck easily outmaneuvering that, teenagers with baseball bats!”
In an interview with The Sentinel, Lane said this issue has come up many times at City Council.
“We debated the BearCat and agreed to accept it in 2010. We debated the BearCat, we had a public hearing ... and the council voted again to accept the BearCat,” Lane said. “Nothing has happened since then that has changed the rationale the city had for making the original decision to accept the BearCat.”
Though Lane said he recognized the city had been the subject of national coverage for the vehicle, he dismissed Colbert and Oliver’s pieces mentioning Keene.
“They take things out of context, they create humor, they do things that they need to do for a TV show,” he said. “That doesn’t do a thing for us. That doesn’t change how we operate.”
Lane said if a councilor has concerns about the ways in which the BearCat is being used, or underused, he or she can bring that up at the committee level when the vehicle’s use reports are discussed.
The mayor and councilors saw two new concept designs for Wheelock Park, which included recommendations for additions such as a dog park, skate park, and new playground area.
The park already houses youth baseball fields, softball fields, youth soccer fields, two tennis courts, 24 horseshoe pits, a volleyball area, two playgrounds, an outdoor hockey rink, a pool and a campground.
The designs were developed by Colorado-based firm Design Concepts. Company Principal Axel Bishop said he envisioned the park as a more cohesive space, with something for every member of the family to do.
Potential additions include adding a meadow for multi-use activities, a dog park, a skate park and a trail system around the park for walkers and bikers.
Bishop also proposed changes to the entrance and parking for better traffic flow.
The presentation was referred to the council’s municipal services, facilities and infrastructure committee for further discussion. That meeting will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m. in City Hall.
The council gave final approval to a resolution voicing the city’s objection to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on campaign contributions. The resolution will add Keene’s name to a growing list of municipalities urging their representatives to overturn the ruling on Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.
The controversial ruling said that independent political campaign contributions made by corporations, associations or labor unions can’t be restricted by the government.
In July, councilors voted unanimously to oppose the Supreme Court ruling, and the resolution was drafted by City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins and Mayor Lane.