- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

PITTSBURGH (AP) — After six persons were shot in the city’s Homewood neighborhood in less than 24 hours, Pittsburgh police rolled in with a 20-ton armored truck with a blast-resistant body, armored rotating roof hatch and gunports.

No guns or drugs were seized and no arrests made during the sweep in the $250,000 armored vehicle, paid for with Homeland Security Department money. But the show of force sent a message. Whether it was the right message is a matter of debate.

With scores of police agencies large and small, from Lexington, Ky., to Austin, Texas, buying armored vehicles at Department of Homeland Security expense, some criminal justice analysts warn that their use in fighting everyday crime could do more harm than good and represents a militaristic turn from the more cooperative community-policing approach promoted in the 1990s.

When the armored truck moved through the Homewood neighborhood late last year, residents came out of their homes to take a look. Some were offended.

“This is really the containment of crime, not the elimination, because to eliminate it you have to address some of the social problems,” complained Rashad Byrdsong.

Law-enforcement agencies say the growing use of the vehicles, a practice that also has its defenders in the academic field of criminal justice, helps ensure police have the tools they need to deal with hostage situations, heavy gunfire and acts of terrorism.

Robert J. Castelli, chairman of criminal justice at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., said if he were a police chief of a force with an armored vehicle, he would order it sent out on every SWAT call.

“Things can go pretty bad pretty quick in police work,” said Mr. Castelli, a former member of the New York State Police.

Mr. Castelli said armored vehicles can send a positive message — that police are in control of the situation — and make police better prepared to deal with more heavily armed criminals, as well as terrorists. But police are also putting the equipment to more routine use, such as delivering warrants to suspects believed to be armed.

“We live on being prepared for ‘what if?’ ” said Pittsburgh Sgt. Barry Budd, a member of the SWAT team.

Critics say that the appearance of armored vehicles in high-crime neighborhoods may only increase tensions by making residents feel as if they are under siege.

Most departments do not have “a credible, justifiable reason for buying these kinds of vehicles,” but find them appealing because they “tap into that subculture within policing that finds the whole military special-operations model culturally intoxicating,” said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and an authority on police militarization. The military-style approach “runs a high risk of being very counterproductive.”

In Pittsburgh, the armored truck made by Lenco Industries Inc. of Pittsfield, Mass., has been used about four times a month, Sgt. Budd said. He said the Lenco B.E.A.R., or Ballistic Engineered Armored Response and Rescue vehicle, was bought primarily to be used in hostage situations and when officers are wounded.

Since the September 11 attacks, police in Lexington, have obtained two armored vehicles, including a Lenco B.E.A.R. paid for with Homeland Security Department money, and two military helicopters from the Pentagon. Police Chief Anthany Beatty said the equipment is used mostly to fight daily crime but the SWAT team takes its armored truck out on every call, including the serving of warrants to heavily armed suspects.

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