It’s an intimidating, armor-plated military vehicle called an MRAP, which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected.
And if the General Assembly approves, one could be coming to the streets of West Haven and other area towns.
“Whether it is for a natural disaster or an active shooter, the main role this vehicle will play is the saving of human life,” West Haven Republican State Rep. Charlie Ferraro testified Thursday before the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee. “Having this vehicle in the police department’s fleet will be an enormous asset to provide for the safety and security of the residents and visitors to our city.”
Ferraro said an MRAP has been on the city’s wish list since 2011, when storms Irene and Sandy brought devastating floods to the city’s shoreline, blocking access to affected areas by the town’s emergency vehicles.
Streets filled with high water or deep snow are no match for an MRAP.
But in response to a national wave of sentiment about what some consider the over-militarization of police departments, Connecticut’s 2020 police-accountability bill banned the purchase of such vehicles by towns, while allowing them to retain those obtained before passage of the bill.
The vehicle West Haven is seeking to acquire is one of two obtained by Farmington police through a federal military-surplus program that has distributed more than $7 billion of equipment throughout the country and Connecticut, mainly military-grade firearms.
The Farmington MRAP would be “transferred” to West Haven at no cost under an amendment to the police-accountability bill.
The amendment was passed by the House of Representatives last year with bi-partisan support, but died when it never came to a vote in the Senate.
Sen. James Maroney, D-West Haven, said the police-accountability bill allowed towns to retain such vehicles as long as they would not be used for “crowd control or intimidation.”
“In my reading, this (amendment) wouldn’t necessarily violate the intent of the bill if you are transferring potential rescue vehicles,” he said.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven whose district includes part of West Haven and who was a major proponent of the police-accountability bill in his role as chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, said the MRAP would have been useful during storms Irene and Sandy when the town’s water pollution control facility, which provides the town with clean water, was left inaccessible by flooding.
“Our fire apparatus was not even able to go through,” she said. “They had to go through with watercraft to reach the facility, which needs to be manned daily.”
Maroney said the vehicle would be shared among the town’s police, fire and emergency management departments, which borrowed and tested the Farmington MRAP during a recent snowstorm and used it to assist a stranded motorist.
But Ferraro and others said it is clear that the vehicle would also be employed in violent situations if needed, even though its tank-like turret and all other “armaments” have been removed.
Ferraro described an incident last April when Branford police were engaged in a shootout with a man who barricaded himself in a Main Street building and used several guns to fire hundreds of rounds that injured one man and damaged many cars and homes.
“Police officers were pinned down in the attack and could not move without risking getting hit by the attacker’s gunfire,” Ferraro told the public safety committee Thursday. “A vehicle similar to the MRAP vehicle mentioned in this bill was used to shield the officers and to get them to safety, thereby more than likely saving lives that day.”
Committee member and retired police officer Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said he is familiar with the Farmington vehicle and is glad that at least one layer of its protective armor was left intact and that it would be shared with other towns if needed.
“For many of these vehicles that’s the main purpose – they’re used by SWAT teams basically to go in and rescue people,” Champagne said. “You can actually load people into it to protect them and get them out of the area.”
And while the vehicle would be available to other towns in the region if needed, committee member State Rep. Rick Hayes, R-Killingly, said he strongly believes that the proposed amendment should be modified to allow every Connecticut municipality to get its own MRAP.
“Why are we allowing West Haven to do this and not every other police department in the state?” asked Hayes, a retired Putnam police officer who was Chief of the force for 12 years.
“I’m in favor of what you’re trying to do here but there’s no way I’ll vote yes for this unless it’s amended to allow other departments across the state to do the exact same thing.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut submitted written testimony opposing the proposal.
“Highly militarized police units and equipment turn communities into war zones,” said Jess Zaccagnino, ACLU-CT policy counsel. “Neighborhoods are not battlegrounds, and no arm of the government should be treating Connecticut residents like wartime enemy combatants.”