HALIFAX — Police in Halifax are wading into the growing national debate over militarization of police forces, having won approval to buy a $500,000 “armoured rescue vehicle” equipped with a rotating roof hatch, eight gun ports and a powered battering ram.
Halifax Coun. Shawn Cleary voted against the pending purchase, saying the brawny, 8,000-kilogram vehicle will project the wrong image for a police force that is trying to repair its image.
He says he’s not opposed to police having some sort of rescue vehicle, but the one that appears to be the preferred option is overkill.
“The type of vehicle that our police are looking for is a militarized, tactical vehicle, more than it is just an armoured vehicle,” says Cleary, who was a member of a military reserve unit for three years when he lived in Ottawa.
“You look at all this stuff and you think, ‘Holy smoke, we’re militarizing our police force.’ It’s exactly the opposite of what I think we should be doing in terms of pursuing positive community relations.”
The city’s deputy mayor, Tony Mancini, has acknowledged the poor timing of a proposal that comes a month after the release of a report on racial profiling that concluded black people in Halifax were street-checked at a rate six times higher than white people.
“We’re dealing with the very delicate and important subject of street checks and repairing damage in our communities,” he told CBC. “And all of a sudden, in the same breath, we’re having conversations about what looks like a military vehicle.”
In a formal request for bids issued last month, Halifax police included a list a specifications that are very close to those of a large, armoured vehicle known as the Gurkha. Manufactured by Terradyne Armoured Vehicles in Newmarket, Ont., the Gurkha includes a variant with a rotating gun turret.
“In the United States and across Canada, we’ve seen this kind of military creep into police forces,” Cleary says. “In my city, I don’t want to see that happen. It sends the wrong kind of message to our citizens.”
Const. John MacLeod, a spokesman for Halifax Regional Police, said a senior officer was not available for an interview but pointed to a recent presentation to the board of police commissioners to explain the police force’s position on the matter.
The presentation emphasized the armoured vehicle would be providing protection — a “safe haven” during high-risk operations and natural disasters. The weaponless vehicle would be used to “safely remove people from dangerous situations,” including active shooters and other threats.
The slide-show, which includes a photo of a Gurkha, says Halifax police need the vehicle because “crises can happen here,” and the nature of challenges faced by officers is changing. “The (vehicle) provides a level of safety for both officers and members of the public,” it says
Such vehicles have proven their worth for some police forces.
In August 2014, for example, the Saskatoon Police Service released a dramatic video — recorded from a police airplane — that showed how their Lenco Bearcat was used to rescue five people who were being shot at during an armed standoff.
Kevin Walby, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, said there are now more than a dozen armoured vehicles being used by police forces across Canada, including in such smaller cities as Fredericton and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Walby said police justify the use of such vehicles by arguing they offer protection to officers and the public during mass public shootings, hostage takings and other high-risk scenarios.
“But they often don’t have numbers to back up that kind of claim,” Walby. “And as soon as you critique that kind of claim, you sound like you don’t want the public to be safe, or you’re anti-police.”
On a more practical level, Walby said larger armoured vehicles are not well-suited to dealing with active shooters or high-risk takedowns because they typically take a long time to deploy and are easily spotted when a low profile is required.
“They are too big and clunky,” Walby said, noting that most of these armoured vehicles are rarely used for their intended purposes.
“It might be used once in a decade. It’s not tactical for the things that SWAT teams do on a day-to-day basis.”
In 2017, the police force in New Glasgow, N.S., decided to give away their armoured vehicle after the police chief confirmed it was never put to good use.
The 10-tonne light-armoured vehicle, known as a Cougar, was donated to the police service after it was stripped of its weapons and decommissioned by the Canadian Army.
“We really have not had any use for that since we’ve had it,” police chief Eric MacNeil said at the time. “Could we have done without it? Yes.”
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press