Fredericton city council’s decision to buy a light-armoured vehicle (LAV) for the Fredericton Police Force has generated a flurry of discussion from residents on social media as well as criticisms from those who study militarization of police forces and criminalization of dissent.
City council unanimously approved the city’s $112.3 million budget for 2017 on Dec. 11, which included a six-year lease of a new LAV for its police force at a cost of approximately $58,000 a year.
Stephanie Whalen posted on the Fredericton Daily News Facebook page: “Why in the world does the force need this? Parades?”
Louis Turgeon on the same Facebook thread pointed out that the RCMP J Division in Fredericton already has such as armoured tactical vehicle and a “bataillon of armed military vehicles about 20 minutes away” at CFB Gagetown.
Some on the Facebook thread supported the decision, saying that the police force should be given the equipment needed to do their job.
Other posts noted that it would do little to reduce Fredericton’s high rate of violence against women or improve the safety of residents walking on icy sidewalks, which the city claims it cannot afford to keep clear.
The LAV destined for Fredericton is known as a Gurkha and is made by Terradyne Armoured Vehicles, of Newmarket, Ontario. The company boasts international connections with Saudia Arabia and Pakistan, both of which have a history of human rights abuses against civilian populations. Saudi Arabia uses the same LAV in its war against Yemen and to police their own population. In 2011, Saudia Arabia invaded Bahrain to end peaceful demonstrations calling for democratic reforms during the Arab Spring.
The LAV is designed to withstand high-calibre rifle rounds and explosions including land mines.
Greg Ericson, Fredericton city councillor and chair of the city’s finance and administration committee, defends the purchase of the LAV as part of community policing. “Fredericton Police Chief Leanne Fitch is a international expert on contemporary community policing. It was asked for by our Chief, for purposes consistent with community policing, under the direct oversight of the appropriate civic authority that has a vested and permanent interest in maintaining community policing outcomes in Fredericton,” says Ericson.
According to Thom Workman, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, the purchase fits more with a trend towards the militarization of police forces in North America, than it does with community policing principles.
“As protests have become more politically acute the militarized capacities of local police forces have risen accordingly. Protests have risen in the wake of police killings and the failure of the legal system to prosecute murderers seeking refuge behind a police badge,” says Workman. “Rather than responding with respect for the right to protest, police forces have responded with aggressive posturing and threatening resolve, intimidation rather than a respect for basic human dignity. It is not difficult to understand why the National Police Association of America endorsed the bigoted, sexist ‘law and order’ candidacy of Donald Trump in the recent US election.”
Ericson says he agrees with Workman’s analysis of the spread of the “militarization” within American police forces but says that was “not part of the discourse that frames the Fredericton context for the lease of a LAV.”
Ericson noted in an email to the NB Media Co-op that Fredericton does not have police staff that are permanent members of swat teams or other emergency response teams (ERTs). Members of Fredericton’s police ERT serve in that capacity as volunteers and normally do other jobs with the police force with a focus on community policing work.
“The ERT, as a unit of policing services, does work outside of Fredericton for other levels of government and other community partners. The LAV increases their capacity to do such work and is supported by a business case for the remuneration of related expenses that does not put Fredericton taxpayers on the hook for subsidizing other communities’ residents,” says Ericson.
According to Ericson, the lease of a LAV for the Fredericton Police Force is important for the “safety and protection of our Fredericton Police Force staff.” He says that the new threats in the Fredericton policing environment can be verified from media reports on gun and drug seizures. “Not to mention growth and proliferation of organized/syndicated crime groups, whether motor cycle gangs or other mob related organizations. These are real threats in Fredericton,” says Ericson.
Organized crime was also used by Ericson and other city councillors to justify a $150,000 payment to the owner of a downtown nightclub, and the purchase of the former Northstar property on the city’s Northside.
Michael Boudreau, a criminologist at St. Thomas University, shares concerns over the growing militarization of police forces. He told that such armoured vehicles are not needed in Fredericton and argues that a LAV does little for public safety or rescue and likely would not have saved the RCMP officers killed by the Moncton shooter Justin Bourque.
Police forces across Canada have been acquiring military equipment, including LAVs and military-style rifles. Police in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia received a decommissioned LAV from the Canadian Forces in 2013. A year later, the Windsor, Ontario police force acquired a similar decommissioned LAV from the armed forces. Ottawa, Hamilton and Winnipeg police forces have also bought armoured vehicles. Sound cannons that cause permanent hearing loss were bought by the Toronto police before the G8 and G20 summits in 2010, by the Vancouver police before the 2010 Winter Olympics and by the Montreal police in 2014.
“The rate of serious crime in Canada is the lowest since 1969 and has been falling steadily for the last 11 years. So what is really needed now? Canada needs much more public oversight of the police services,” wrote Branka Marijan for Project Ploughshares earlier this year.
“The policing fraternity rarely transcends its narrow horizons, horizons that typically include a black and white view of the world. In the end, militarized displays of police presence will be sure to show up at demonstrations, rallies and protests just as surely as the police officers themselves,” says Workman.
The civilian oversight body that regulates police forces is the New Brunswick Police Commission. Half of its six members, including the chair, are former police officers. A fourth member of the board is a corrections officer. Civilian oversight in Canada has long been resisted by police forces in other jurisdictions. There are no visible minorities or members of over-policed communities, such as Aboriginal people, represented on the Commission.
Workman is worried about how a militarized police force will be used to intimidate people and squash legitimate dissent.
“The perception of threat rises in accordance with the militarization of local law enforcement, and not the other way around — especially in a quiet community like Fredericton. But broader national trends render this decision especially alarming. Across Canada we see courageous Aboriginal, environmental and community protests against extreme energy investment including pipeline construction, bitumen extraction and processing, and hydraulic fracturing protests. These protests have reached Fredericton and across New Brunswick.”
Workman adds that “it is acutely alarming that the LAV comes at a time when we learned that the RCMP has compiled an Aboriginal watch list (including 35 individuals from New Brunswick) in the aftermath of the Idle No More movement.”
Tracy Glynn is on the board of the NB Media Co-op.