The East Hampton Town Board voted to accept an anonymous donation of a BearCat tactical response vehicle at its meeting last Thursday.
The armored vehicle will replace one that Chief Michael Sarlo of the Town Police Department told the board last month is aging and outdated. It is to be used, according to the resolution adopted last Thursday, to allow the emergency services unit, which is made up of officers of the town, East Hampton Village, and Sag Harbor Village Police Departments, to deploy to a dangerous situation.
In consultations with Chief Sarlo as well as Chief Michael Tracey of the East Hampton Village police and Chief Austin McGuire of the Sag Harbor Village police, the donor indicated a desire to make a significant donation to assist with school safety.
“This vehicle is commonly referred to as a BearCat,” the chief had told the board on May 7, but the vehicle to be donated is “spec’ed out for our purposes as a MedCat.” While it is armored, allowing a team to deploy as close as possible to an incident, it is also outfitted as an ambulance, he said. The vehicle uses a standard Ford F-350 chassis. Its expected useful life span is 15 years.
Some residents had questioned whether it is appropriate for the town to accept an anonymous donation valued at some $300,000, and are unsettled by what they call the militarization of police departments.
Chief Sarlo, citing the rash of mass shootings in the United States, which includes numerous such incidents at schools, said that he does not have the luxury of assuming that such an incident would never happen in East Hampton. There are “many, many soft and hard targets,” as defined by the federal Department of Homeland Security, on the East End, he told the board, citing not only schools but houses of worship, street fairs, ferry terminals, airports, and train stations.
Law enforcement is obligated to respond to incidents, he said, “including, heaven forbid, a mass shooting,” or detonation of an explosive device.
Further, the chief said, East Hampton is visited by many high-profile people, including presidents and presidential candidates, federal judges, actors and athletes, and business titans. “These people frequent our area, and would be high-profile victims for an attack,” he said. “We must be prepared to respond.”
“We were approached by a third party with a donor who wished to support school safety . . . and to provide something that would help better protect the citizens of the town,” the chief told the board. There is “zero quid pro quo, no expectation of services, no desire for anything in return,” he said. Rather, the donor’s motivation is solely to help the police departments and schools. “He did not just say, ‘Here’s the money, do whatever.’ He wanted to choose what would best work for us.”
“I do not want to be the talking head on the national news,” the chief said, nor be unable to rescue someone “because we didn’t have the proper vehicle.”
Councilman Jeff Bragman had said at the May 7 meeting that, while he held “an inclination against militarizing the police force,” he trusted the chief’s judgment. “These are tough topics,” he said. “I do hope we don’t have to use it.”
The chief answered that the vehicle does not represent a militarization of the police. It will not be outfitted with machine guns, he said. It will not patrol Montauk’s party scene. “This is not a tank, and it’s not a toy,” he said.
Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc agreed. “Where would we be if we said no” to the donation, he asked, and then “didn’t have the ability to respond” to an incident. He said that he preferred not to know the donor’s identity to alleviate any perceived conflict of interest in the future.
“We live in a different world now,” said Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who also did not want to know the donor’s identity.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, too, chose not to learn the donor’s identity. “It is sad, the world has changed,” she said. “It is a different feeling at the high school, at any school.”
The chief said that he hopes the vehicle is never put to use, but reiterated that “we have to be prepared.”