A potential political minefield popped up Tuesday in West Haven’s two-year bid to secure an armor-plated military vehicle to use in disaster and shooting rescues, but some quick legislative steering put the vehicle back on track for its target destination at the town’s police department.
The planned free transfer to West Haven of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, now owned by Farmington police could have been derailed by a surprise amendment to related legislation that was introduced at a State Capitol meeting of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee.
Proposed by Stonington Republican committee member and police officer Greg Howard on behalf of West Haven Democrat Sen. James Maroney, the amendment would have allowed any town in the state to secure an MRAP under certain conditions – not just West Haven as a proposed bill now specifies.
“That’s exactly what this amendment seeks to do is to open that availability for all municipalities,” Howard said at the meeting.
Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, said she worried that adding that clause to the bill at the last minute would jeopardize it being approved by the full General Assembly in an eventual vote.
“West Haven has waited patiently for two years through our navigational, complex process to get this vehicle donated from Farmington so they could use it for rescue purposes,” Borer said. “I’m not willing to risk killing this bill that came to us from my police chief, my fire chief and my emergency services director who have asked us to get this through.”
The vehicle, estimated to be worth about $700,000 when it was received by Farmington police, would be shared among West Haven’s police, fire and emergency services departments, and would be loaned to other towns if needed.
Borer and state Rep. Charlie Ferraro, D-West Haven, have said the MRAP would be used mainly for rescue in heavy snow storms or flooding similar to levels of storms Irene and Sandy in 2011, which caused heavy damage to homes along the town’s shoreline and blocked access to neighborhoods and public-utility stations.
It also could be used in a shooting or other criminal situation to ferry victims, bystanders and officers to and from the scene.
Rep. Rick Hayes, R-Killingly, said he supported the amendment to include all towns in the bill as a way to avoid the legislative process for an individual bill every time a town may want to secure a similar transfer of equipment from another department.
“I can’t see why we won’t do it for every town and this is a chance to do that,” said Hayes, a retired Putnam police chief. “If not, we’ll be back looking at another bill for individual towns and I don’t think we should be doing that.”
Committee co-chair Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, said she was unaware of any other town wanting an MRAP, adding she “wouldn’t want to jeopardize the hard work that has gone into this over the last two years for something that came up at the last minute here.”
The amendment also would have added language to the bill prohibiting a town from receiving an MRAP from another town if it was not in use by that town before July 1, 2020, when the legislature passed the sweeping Police Accountability Bill that banned the purchase of such vehicles by towns, but allowed them to retain those obtained before passage of the bill.
Several Connecticut towns, including nearby Madison, had obtained MRAPs before that date through a late-1990s federal military-surplus program that distributed more than $7 billion of equipment throughout the country and Connecticut, mainly military-grade firearms.
Cities and towns across the country who had obtained MRAPs, including New London, transferred the vehicles in the similar fashion after passage of the police accountability bill and the associated calls for restraint on use of force by police.
The vehicles have been viewed by some as overly-intimidating, especially after being used for crowd-control at protests around the nation sparked by a string of police killings of Black people that led to the passage of police-accountability legislation, which in Connecticut bans the use of MRAPs for such purposes.
Howard’s amendment failed to pass by a 12 to 9 margin, but the committee voted nearly unanimously to send the original bill to the House of Representatives for debate, with only Hayes voting against it.