The Real Paramilitary SWAT Trucks of Orange County

The quarter-million-dollar vehicles are available to police in four suburban cities, including Irvine, which ranks as the safest city in America.
The Irvine Police Department as it presents itself on its Instagram page.

How safe is Irvine, California? Last year, it had the lowest violent-crime rate of any city with more than 100,000 people–a title it has claimed for nine straight years. Its population is roughly 230,000, yet there are typically just two murders per annum. If the UC Irvine mascot escaped its cage and started roaming city streets, only local ants would hide. The most feared figure from Irvine? Ezra Klein.

Irvine is that safe. Yet some years ago, the city bought a military-style, nine-ton, $283,000 armor-plated truck. It has gun ports in the walls. There's a rotating turret on top. Federal counterterrorism dollars funded the purchase. Money well spent? "Whether these purchases were worthwhile or just taxpayer-funded boondoggles is difficult to determine years later, in part because the agencies have destroyed records and don't carefully track each vehicle's use," the Orange County Register reports. "Irvine police said they don't know how many times the BEAR was used before 2009. If police usage hasn’t changed since 2004, the truck has cost taxpayers about $5,400 per call, not including gas and maintenance costs."

Sounds like a boondoggle to me, especially when one recalls important context from 2004:

The Army moved Friday to boost production of armored Humvees for American troops in Iraq by 100 a month, despite recent assertions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that soldiers could not be supplied with safer vehicles because Pentagon officials could not procure them any faster. The steps to increase production came two days after Rumsfeld bluntly told troops being sent to combat that assembly lines installing armor on the vehicles were already operating at maximum capacity. The developments could further embarrass the Bush administration, which for more than a year has not come up with enough equipment to protect U.S. troops in Iraq from a deadly insurgency that war planners failed to anticipate.

Irvine police can't be blamed for taking what was given them. A terrorist attack or an unusual bank heist like the one in Heat could theoretically happen anyplace, and a police chief offered military-grade hardware isn't going to turn it down. But the folks higher up the chain who facilitate transactions like this are behaving irresponsibly. Municipal officials are militarizing their communities, and the dispensers of homeland-security dollars are squandering them. It is highly unlikely that this vehicle will prove indispensable before it wears out from age and dust, and if it does, blind luck will be more responsible that sound planning.

In fact, the scariest event in Irvine's history may be the day our leaders decided putting a SWAT truck there was the best way to allocate $238,000 in public safety funds. 

How competent can they be?

Lest you think this is a fluke, other quarter-million-dollar armored trucks are also in the possession of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana, and the one Orange County city that has the strongest claim of any to having a terrorist target within its borders, Anaheim, home of Disneyland. 

Still, the question, "Does Orange County, California need more than one of these vehicles?" can have just one sensible answer: "No, there are better uses for the money." 

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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