By Josh Brokaw
The Ithaca Police Department will again be going shopping for SWAT team tactical equipment with federal funds.
Common Council’s City Administration committee recommended accepting a $100,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security at its Wednesday, June 21 meeting.
“[T]his funding is provided to improve and develop tactical team capabilities through equipment, training, exercise, and planning projects that support counter terrorism missions in your jurisdiction,” reads the letter from John Melville, commissioner of New York State Homeland Security and Emergency Services, explaining the uses of money accepted through the State Homeland Security Grant Program.
Alderperson Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) asked Pete Tyler, acting chief of the Ithaca Police Department, for an explanation of what IPD will be buying with the funds.
“We want to make sure we answer questions now that prevent the kind of controversy we had a few years ago for a similar grant,” Fleming said. “This room was packed full of people making public comments about the militarization of the police … we need to understand the need for this equipment, the uses for this equipment, and the kind of restraint involved in using the equipment.”
Tyler said that $80,500 of the $100,000 “tactical team grant” will be spent on new equipment, with the remainder earmarked for paying overtime costs for officers’ training to use the new equipment.
One item on the IPD’s shopping list is a “small handheld robot that looks like a kid’s toy we can remotely throw into a building,” Tyler said. “We have a viewport, a handheld screen, we can look at and basically drive it … it’s small, portable eyes and ears we can utilize to explore and look at, for example, on an extended barricade incident.”
A “handheld sensor radar unit” is “fairly new technology,” Tyler said, that “allows us to see through walls given certain conditions.”
“That’s not something we’d use for general everyday policing. It’s something very specific to a high risk situation,” Tyler continued. “If we’re trying to find a probable subject in a building and trying to pinpoint [location].”
Night vision goggles are also on the IPD shopping list.
“That allows us to have advantage in low light or complete darkness,” Tyler said. “For obvious reasons that can sound controversial but it’s something that absolutely keeps our officers safe … if the bad guy can’t see us and we can see him or her then that is a significant advantage.”
Tyler used the stakeout after the Wal-Mart shooting last December as an example of how this equipment could be used.
“One of the bigger challenges for our department, in cooperation with the sheriff’s department, was trying to figure out where this person was,” Tyler said. “Once we determine where somebody is that dictates and determines what our tactics would be.”
New, lighter helmets; an “air purifying respirator” and self-contained breathing apparatuses; and cameras on poles, fill out the list of equipment IPD wants to purchase with the Homeland Security funding.
Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D-4th) asked what the burden was on IPD related to the sentence in Melville’s letter stating that “all capabilities” added through the grant should be “deployable regionally and nationally per the Federal guidelines.”
Tyler said he was unsure, exactly, what that language meant.
“I would hope we would be informed if the guidelines will impact us in any way,” Kerslick noted.
This grant is the third from Homeland Security for tactical equipment upgrades that IPD has received in the last three years. In September 2014, there was public dissent and a petition signed by more than 100 people telling Common Council not to accept the Homeland Security funding, a few weeks after an off-duty IPD officer apprehended city teenagers who were riding their bikes.
IPD used that grant to buy, among other things, a $41,000 tactical robot. Tyler said on June 21 that robot was still in use.
A second $100,000 grant from Homeland Security was received by IPD in early 2016.
That round of purchases included a $13,000 night vision helmet unit, $13,500 worth of SCUBA equipment, a $14,000 portable mass notification system, and a $22,600 throw phone for hostage negotiations.
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Here’s the full letter from John Melville:
Featured photo: Via ‘Ithaca Police Department SWAT’ page on Facebook