The Sacramento City Council authorized buying an armored vehicle that is considered military equipment in a 7-2 vote on Tuesday, more than a year after approving the police department’s plans to acquire the roughly $440,000 “Rook.”
More than a dozen community members urged the council to reject the purchase, citing concerns with the city’s military equipment use policy and the killing of former Sacramento resident Tyre Nichols by Memphis police.
A Rook is an armored, multi-terrain vehicle designed to use in critical incidents, such as hostage situations and barricaded suspects, according to a city staff report.
Law enforcement officers maneuver a vehicle named The Rook behind a housing complex where police said a man barricaded himself on Friday, March 27, 2015 in Hempfield, Pa.AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
The armored vehicle is classified as military equipment under AB 481, which requires California law enforcement agencies to get annual council approval for the funding, acquisition and use of certain items. The law covers drones, flashbangs, armored vehicles and other items that government agencies decide need special oversight.
Plans to buy a Rook have been part of the city’s military equipment use policy since December 2021, when the council approved it in a 7-2 vote. At the time, Council member Katie Valenzuela asked to call off buying the vehicle. She and Council member Mai Vang originally voted against approving the policy, and dissented again in September 2022 when police updated the plan.
Valenzuela and Vang opposed buying the armored vehicle Tuesday, as well. Under AB 481, the council is supposed to approve a policy only if the military equipment is necessary, cost effective and will protect the public’s safety and civil rights.
Valenzuela said buying the Rook is not necessary.
“Further militarizing our law enforcement is moving us in the wrong direction,” she said. “If we’re really going to engage in the conversation about safety, then we need to really take seriously the comments that we are receiving and beyond potential costs, beyond where the money comes from, beyond the law where it now stands. I just don’t believe this is the right move for our city.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Police Chief Kathy Lester said a federal grant from the Urban Areas Security Initiative program covers the cost of buying the Rook. If the city doesn’t spend the $440,000 grant on the vehicle, Lester said the funding goes back to a regional board that determines how to spend it.
Sacramento police have access to a Rook from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office. Since 2019, Sacramento police have asked the sheriff’s office to use it 13 times, according to Deputy Chief Norm Leong, who also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. City police limit how often they use the county Rook because other law enforcement agencies in the region may need it, Leong said.
Lester said the armored vehicle is not deployed for protests or sweeping homeless encampments.
“We understand that any item that has a military appearance rightfully raises questions and concerns in our community and we are very sensitive to that,” Lester said. “While this equipment does have armored plating for officer protection, it is not employed in any of the traditional sense of military use. This piece of equipment is highly specialized; it’s not used for routine operation and will only be used in the most dangerous of situations.”
Keyan Bliss, a member of the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission, was among those who urged the council to not approve the purchase. He said the city buying a Rook is not cost effective or necessary, given police can ask the sheriff’s office.
“Not only is this item poorly timed given the recent murder of Tyre Nichols and not aligned with community’s concerns around the lack of police accountability, it also does not meet requirements one or three of AB 481,” Bliss said.
But Council member Rick Jennings said buying the vehicle would allow city police to have their own Rook available, instead of needing to request it from the county.
“I believe it’s something that is needed in order to protect our citizens and our officers,” Jennings said. “And for them to continue to be able to serve and be able to return home to their families.”
The discussion Tuesday marked the first time three new council members — Lisa Kaplan, Karina Talamantes and Caity Maple — voted on an issue related to police military equipment. Maple, who voted on Tuesday to authorize purchasing the Rook, had previously spoken against buying armored vehicles during her campaign to represent District 5, which includes Oak Park.
“It’s time to demilitarize Sacramento’s police force,” Maple said in a series of tweets in April 2021. “Militarization didn’t begin until the 60’s and has increased exponentially since. Sacramento has even purchased the equivalent of tanks in recent years. We are not at war with our communities, why do we need war equipment?”
Maple issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying she should “have done better outreach to the community” before Tuesday’s vote.
“It was my responsibility to do proactive outreach, and I failed,” Maple said on Twitter. “Our team will be scheduling a town hall to get input from residents on the use of law enforcement equipment so that I can be better prepared to take action on similar issues in the future.”
The council will need to give its annual approval of Sacramento police’s military equipment use policy later this year. AB 481 also says decisions about military equipment should be based on meaningful public input.
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