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Gamroth questions militarization of police as Casper PD asks for money to buy armored vehicle

The Natrona County Sheriff's Office shows its Lenco BearCat armored vehicle to media on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Casper Police Department is asking for one-cent money to buy an armored vehicle if voters choose to renew the countywide optional sales and use tax for another four years this November.

The police department’s overall one-cent request asks for $5.5 million of the $64.5 million the city estimates would be its share of revenues should the tax be renewed.

Councilmember Kyle Gamroth questioned the request for the armored vehicle, pointing to “a belief nationwide [that] militarization of police could contribute to more dangerous situations.” Gamroth asked Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters whether he thinks there is any merit to the argument that use of more military-style equipment could contribute to an increase in violence between people and police.

The question is a difficult one to answer, McPheeters said, adding that the BearCat vehicle the police department is looking to buy is the “least aggressive” in terms of its appearance, function and size out of the armored vehicle options available. The BearCat that the police department is considering is not a new armored vehicle but one that is about a decade old and has been remanufactured by the manufacturer, McPheeters said.

The Natrona County Sheriff’s Office has an armored vehicle that McPheeters noted was used to provide cover for law enforcement responding to a March 18–19 standoff with a suspect who barricaded himself in an Evansville residence. Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen determined four Casper police officers were justified in firing their weapons during that incident, in part due to the suspect firing upon law enforcement first. The suspect’s death was caused by a single gunshot wound to the chest fired by a law enforcement officer, Natrona Coroner James Whipps said in April.

While that March standoff resulted in an exchange of gunfire, McPheeters said a range of studies as well as his own experience in law enforcement suggest tools like an armored vehicle tend to help law enforcement de-escalate tense situations.

Both nationally and locally, McPheeters said there appears to be an increase in violence toward law enforcement.

“The proclivity to want to go ahead and shoot it out has changed,” he said.

An armored vehicle is not only a tool that can help increase law enforcement’s ability to get suspects to comply and reach peaceful ends to tense situations, but can also help when law enforcement needs to rescue people in duress, McPheeters said.

“This isn’t trying to give officers something cool,” he said.

While NCSO has an armored vehicle that can be used to assist neighboring law enforcement agencies, McPheeters said there is a need for another one, noting that a second armored vehicle would have been valuable to help protect law enforcement during the March standoff in Evansville.

The police department is asking for $150,000 in one-cent funds to be allocated specifically to the armored vehicle purchase and an additional $5.35 million to go toward police vehicles more generally. The actual cost of the armored vehicle is expected to be closer to $375,000.

The police department would likely purchase the armored vehicle toward the end of the upcoming four-year one-cent cycle, McPheeters said. Councilmember Bruce Knell asked why the purchase wouldn’t be made sooner if it is needed.

“Why not go get it while you can?” he asked, adding that the remanufactured BearCat might not be available if the police department waits.

McPheeters said the police department also needs to replace aging police vehicles and is dealing with higher costs to do that.

While the police department initially presented a plan in February to replace 42 police vehicles for $2.37 million using leftover money from a previous one-cent cycle, McPheeters said it recently received a bid to replace a police vehicle that was sideswiped that came in 28% higher than the department had anticipated.

There are about 60 police vehicles in need of replacement, with the department now hoping to use money from the upcoming one-cent cycle to achieve that rather than relying on the plan presented in February. Not all of the vehicles will be immediately replaced, as the department seeks to stretch the lifespan of vehicles as much as it can, McPheeters said. The decision as to when to proceed on the armored vehicle purchase will be made along with decisions about fleet replacement overall, he added.

The police department has long been reliant on one-cent money to purchase vehicles, McPheeters said, adding that what the department is asking for in the upcoming one-cent cycle is not as much money as the department actually needs for vehicles.

The police department recognizes one-cent money is needed to meet the needs of other city departments and there isn’t enough to go around, he said.

Gamroth asked City Manager Carter Napier to clarify the process for approving the purchase of police vehicles.

The City Council is being asked to establish a plan for use of one-cent revenues over the next four years and pass a resolution as a commitment to residents as to how that money will be used should voters renew the tax. That is just the first step in purchases actually getting approved, Napier said. When the police department wants to purchase a vehicle, the City Council must approve the contract for specific bids before a purchase can happen.

The City Council will continue its discussion of a plan for use of one-cent revenues at its July 12 work session.

City staff’s proposal for use of one-cent funds can be reviewed as follows: