A controversial item on the Norman City Council agenda calling for the purchase of an armored vehicle and other items for the police department was pulled from consideration Monday after councilors expressed concern over the use of civil asset forfeiture funds and a lack of public discussion.
The item for consideration indicated the department would use $1,139,088 from the “State Seizures and Restitution Fund” to pay for safety equipment, including a large BearCat, a SWAT vehicle designed for military and law enforcement use.
A staff report indicated the funds would also be used to pay for training and safety equipment, including tactical vests, helmets, gas masks, ballistic shields and other protective equipment for bomb threats.
Of the items requested, the BearCat cost is $353,000.
Civil asset forfeiture funds are proceeds from the seizure of a person’s property when prosecutors file a civil action to keep it if the individual is suspected of being involved in a crime, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The property can be seized even if the person has not been charged or convicted of a crime, the website read.
Some states have banned the use of civil asset forfeiture, including North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska, NCSL indicated.
The item drew criticism and support from councilors Monday when The Transcript asked each about their willingness to support the allocation.
Councilors for Ward 1 and 2, Brandi Studley and Helen Grant, respectively, took issue with the absence of committee and public discussion.
“I am concerned with the lack of transparency and discussion with council and the public regarding any of the equipment,” Studley said.
Grant said more information about the department’s needs would be forthcoming in a public safety study which the council agreed to commission during a goal setting retreat. The study would better inform police funding, councilor for Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman said at the time.
“The public made it pretty clear in feedback about our failed water rate increase that they wanted us to focus on affordable housing and homelessness first, as 24% of respondents ranked it as a priority,” Grant said. “Police and Fire along with a nebulous category called “other” came in second at 15% respectively.”
Mayor Larry Heikkila and councilors for Ward 3 and Ward 5, Kelly Lynn and Rarchar Tortorello, respectively, requested the item be placed on the agenda last week, the staff report indicated.
“Anyone that stands against this has a complete disregard for the safety of those in our community,” Lynn said.
After Heikkila learned of other councilors’ concerns, he agreed it should be pulled for further study.
“We all agreed it needs more talking, more thinking about,” he said. “We may break it up into three parts. There’s a bomb robot, there’s some gear and there’s a vehicle.”
Heikkila said some people favor a bomb robot but not the BearCat and didn’t “want a package deal” for the proposed equipment.
“We’ve been talking forever about talking peacefully and decently, and this is an opportunity to do it,” Heikkila said.
The request comes on the heels of last month’s standoff with a barricaded suspect that prompted the police department to borrow the armored vehicle from the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Department, The Transcript reported. It was the second time in 18 months the department found it necessary to use BearCat.
The suspect allegedly fired from a residence in the 3200 block of Timber Shadows Drive, striking the vehicle multiple times but not hitting any officers, according to statements from the agencies. The vehicle was also used to evacuate nearby residents, police reported at the time.
Tortorello then issued a news release stating the council should reconsider purchasing a BearCat for the department.
A 2020 study from Louisiana State University concluded that military-grade equipment given to agencies through a federal fund does not lower crime in communities whose law enforcement agencies have them.
One of the authors of the study also told ABC News that data shows the equipment doesn’t increase or decrease officer injuries, either.
Tortorello said Monday the vehicle clearly protected both residents and police during the October standoff.
“Public safety shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said. “We’re looking at officer and civilian safety foremost and it’s time that we revisit this. We have the money, we have the funding mechanism.”
Ward 7 councilor Stephen Holman said Monday he would prefer to consider the item in a study session before seeing it brought forward for an official vote during a regular meeting.
“Especially since it’s 19 items over a million dollars,” Holman said. “I don’t think most of the items on that list are controversial, but for sure the BearCat is definitely the most by far.
“I do have some questions about tear gas and ballistic shields … whether that’s for the SWAT team or are we still trying to create a riot control team?”
Holman said he is generally opposed to the use of civil asset forfeiture money, but would consider using other funds.
“We have a budget surplus and the purpose of that is to use on what we consider priorities and if that list of items for the police department are the priority and that they absolutely have to have it to do their job, then I think it’s definitely worth the council considering other options.”
Tortorello said he would be open to paying for it with surplus funds if the council did not wish to rely on the forfeiture fund.
Tortorello said “in this day and age” when assault rifle ownership is common, “we need to make sure any future incidents like we had last month that these guys are well protected.”
During previous council discussions, Chief Kevin Foster has said the department needed SWAT equipment to replace that which was outdated and in poor condition. Council denied requests to use forfeiture funds following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and national protests against police brutality.
The council also declined a grant to pay for what it believed would be “riot gear,” the Transcript reported.
In 2015, former police Chief Keith Humphrey requested the department be approved for an armored vehicle — a Lenco BearCat — for officer safety. BearCats are primarily used by law enforcement agencies and the United States Military.