The Mercer County Freeholders are slated to approve $287,000 for the purchase of an armored vehicle this Thursday night, a move that is opposed by some nonprofits and many residents in Princeton. Residents have written letters about the issue and contacted elected officials. They also plan on attending the freeholder meeting.
Opponents of the armored vehicle purchase say it is a waste of money that could instead be used for education or for fixing more infrastructure in the county. They are also concerned that the armored vehicle will encourage the militarization of county law enforcement.
Members of the group Not In Our Town issued a joint statement saying that the purchase follows a trend of civilian police ans sheriff’s departments using military style tactics, weapons and vehicles. “The change in policing methods comes at a financial and social cost to the community. This cost is both in the expense of tactical vehicles and equipment, but more critically, it is the cost of the disengagement of law enforcement from the communities being served, in particular communities of color,” reads the letter.
The Coalition for Peace Action has also voiced opposition to the purchase, saying that police militarization fails to protect officers and targets black communities.
Princeton resident John Heilner, a vocal opponent of the purchase, said that studies by both academics and law enforcement organizations have found that the militarization of the police is counter productive, especially in tense situations. “Deescalation techniques are much more effective,” Heilner said.
“We have lived in Mercer County for over 20 years, and I cannot recall a single incident where an armored vehicle like the one proposed would have helped the situation,” Heilner said.
But Sheriff Jack Kemler says that the armored vehicle is needed for the safety of officers and residents.
“Our concern is for the safety of our citizens and officers during a critical incident. Let’s be clear, the vehicle to be purchased by the sheriff’s office is not a tank and not an assault vehicle,” Kemler said in a written statement. “It is an armor protected vehicle that will only be used for extremely dangerous situations such as a sniper, hostage negotiations, bomb threats, mass shooting incidents, active shooter incidents at a school, the threat of a dangerous felon, and for protection during situations – such as the 36-hour standoff on Centre Street in Trenton in May of 2017.”
Opponents of the purchase sat the vehicle features 12 optical gun slots, which they argue is hardly “defensive only.”
Freeholder Andrew Koontz, a resident of Princeton, opposes the purchase. He is the only freeholder to voice opposition to the spending plan.
“I have real concerns about it,” Koontz said. “I think it’s a lot of money, and I’m concerned about police militarization in general.”
Law enforcement officials have noted that the armored vehicle could have been used in the standoff with the man with a gun at Panera in 2018. The state’s tank was in use and law enforcement officials had to wait for it to be freed up for their use. As Koontz points out, that situation ended badly. Tensions escalated. State police shot and killed the man when it appeared that he might shoot at the police. It turned out that he was only carrying a BB gun.
The freeholders’ public meeting will be held on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the McDade County Administration Building, which is located at 640 Broad Street in Trenton.