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Mayor Krauss, Kirchhoff discuss City's 'military counter-attack' vehicle

Wednesday, 24 September 2014, 6 p.m.
Bozeman Public Library board room
Jeff Krauss, Mayor of Bozeman (third term)
Steve Kirchhoff, former Mayor of Bozeman (‘02-’03), former City Commissioner (’99-’07)
Blake Maxwell,
The Bozeman Magpie, moderator

BM: In October of 2013, City Manager Chris Kukulski signed a grant award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“grant application,” Mayor Krauss said)—grant application for the acquisition of the Lenco G3 BearCat, what the manufacturer describes as a “military counter-attack” vehicle. The acquisition occurred on a recommendation by Police Chief Ron Price, and though Bozeman PD and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department would share usage of the BearCat, the City of Bozeman is named as the sole owner. Seven months later in May of 2014, the City of Bozeman took possession of the vehicle, but decided it would not be put in service until law enforcement personnel were properly trained. In August of this year, that training occurred, but even then, the city manager and the police chief never directly brought the presence of the BearCat to the attention of the public or the elected City Commission. Because of the full federal funding via the grant, it wasn’t traceable in the City general fund, annual proposed budget, nor the City’s Capital Improvement Plan. And were it not for a news story made public on Wednesday, September 17th by KBZK’s Keele Smith, the item would not have been on this week’s commission agenda and the public would still be in the dark.

Mr. Mayor, do I have that right? Is there anything you’d like to add or change?

JK: I think you have the gist of that right. I saw a Facebook post from KBZK about it that said, “Look at Bozeman’s new vehicle; what do you think, Bozemanites?” And that’s when I sent an email out and called a couple of commissioners. In the email, I said I’d like to discuss this at Monday night’s meeting. It’s the mayor’s prerogative to put things on the agenda. It seemed exigent to talk about this.

BM: And only two parties, procedurally, can put an item on the commission’s agenda, right? The mayor and the city manager.

JK: Well, three. Three commissioners can say, “We want something on the agenda.” The city manager always is responsible for the agenda, putting on it everything to do, for example, the purchase of the— or even the grant for the purchase of this vehicle on the agenda.

BM: Mr. Kirchhoff, a lot of the controversy stems from what this BearCat really is, ranging from a rescue vehicle to a SWAT Team tank. What do you perceive the BearCat to be?

SK: Totally inappropriate for our community, first of all. And kind of, I think, mistaken— a misapprehension on the part of law enforcement. They think the citizenry can be protected by a weapon. I don’t think that is really how we’ve ever encouraged law enforcement to think about how they serve and protect the people. It strikes me as a militarization of law enforcement and an upping of the ante.

Frankly, things like that, make me concerned because I know that when someone gets a big gun, the people that are afraid of the big gun turn around and try to get a bigger gun. This doesn’t strike me as the biggest armament that could ever be brought into Gallatin County. So, people’s responses to it could be led by fear and a desire to protect themselves from what they see as an ominous threat from the government.

JK: First of all, I want to say I appreciate the former mayor coming down and talking about this, because, just as he said, had we been given an opportunity to discuss this, vote on it, anything, before the grant was applied for, or received, or used, I would have said, “Wait a minute. What are we doing here?”

My idea of a rescue vehicle—you know, it’s been described as a rescue vehicle—is some kind of jet-propelled motorboat so you can rocket up to House Rock, so you can get a rafter that’s fallen in and is trapped behind House Rock. Or maybe it’s a snowmobile that you spin up into the hills and get somebody who broke their leg while they were skiing or snowmobiling. Or a dog that you go out and sniff out avalanche victims. Those are rescue… vehicles, right?

This is not a rescue vehicle. And it doesn’t look like one. When you see it, it is an intimidating vehicle.

I don’t understand why there isn’t a trip wire that says, “Well, we don’t have an armored vehicle now. We should go to the commission and say, do we want an armored vehicle? ‘Cause we don’t have one now, we’ve never discussed one. We better go see if the commission wants one.” And then the commission—being the elected representatives of the people—can hear from people like Steve, who has a good feel for the community, or me, or any of us. Wait a minute, an armored— a giant piece of armor— you know, I was calling it a tank before I saw it. But it isn’t a tracked vehicle, so I guess it doesn’t fit the classic definition of a tank. But it looks pretty tank-like.

BM: Mr. Kukulski has tried to describe the series of events now lasting a year as a singular “mistake,” or a “gaffe,” another one of the words he used. What do you say to that, Mr. Mayor?

JK: Well, so when the grant was proposed to him, that would have been a time to tell us. When the grant was signed, that would have been a time to tell us. When the grant was received, that would have been a time to tell us. When the vehicle was ordered, that would have been a time to tell us. When the vehicle was received, that would have been a time to tell us. When one commissioner found it, that would have been a time to tell us. Every Monday night at FYI, at the end of every meeting Monday night from last October until now, that would have been a time to tell us. Sometime in the CIP, the Capital Improvements Plan, over the last eleven years, going back to when Steve and I served together, you know, that would have been a time to tell us, “Hey, you know what? This police force needs a giant armored vehicle.” We were never told any of those times. In essence, we were told when I saw a Facebook post.

That does not sound like a singular gaffe. And I don’t know how it was when you were mayor, but I just don’t think we did things like that.

BM: You mentioned “militarization of law enforcement,” a national debate right now. The case has been proposed by Chief Price and Mr. Kukulski that five other municipalities in Montana have BearCats already, and we need one, too. Mr. Kirchhoff, what would say in regards to that?

SK: Well, I think the mayor’s already covered that. When you want to rescue people, then get something built for rescue. If you want to attack people, you get something that’s built for attack. This is the latter. Who needs to be attacked? Or, if your logic is, “We’re not going to attack our citizenry, don’t be foolish. We’re hoping that there would never be some sort of catastrophic rampage by a crazed individual.” I’m not sure this is the nimble sort of outfit to deal with a situation like that. And if you also hope and pray that such a thing would never visit our community, that there would be no such occurrence in Bozeman, then why would you pay a quarter of a million dollars for something you hope to never use?

JK: I just have this thing that says, “You know, I don’t like all the federal spending.” In regards to the federal budget, there’s always people who say, “Well, what would you cut?” Well, I think I’d cut a program that reaches all the way down to a town of 40,000 in southwest Montana, and said, we will facilitate your purchase of a Lenco BearCat G3. If you extrapolate that nationwide, is that hundreds of millions of dollars? I mean, if every 40,000 people have one now.

Not only is that not Bozeman, Montana, to me, that’s not the United States I grew up in.

BM: As you outlined, Mr. Mayor, many have expressed outrage by the clear avoidance of public input on this vehicle’s acquisition, as well as a change in community culture. In fact, charges of collusion have been lofted toward the city commission and you, Mr. Mayor. What’s your response?

JK: As you know, there’s always a conspiracy theory out there, and that could include me. So, we’re five— I’m one of five. Mayors in Bozeman are one of five, five of us have to act, right? At least three of us have to act. So, I’m not the one who knew about it for a while, but I think, even more than that, I wasn’t the mayor last year when part of this activity took place. And, I have to say, as soon as I found out about this, I put on an agenda and we started talking about it, and we started getting input, you know, from my peers, like Steve Kirchhoff here and the rest of the community.

BM: Steve, the country is suffering through an era of eroding trust in government. But this isn’t another Washington tale of woe. This is Bozeman. The City staff is comprised of our neighbors and friends. Many of us simply don’t accept that the breakdown here is procedural in nature, so what do you think really happened?

SK: My speculation is no better than anyone else’s, so I can’t answer that. The way that it’s been described to me sounds like a whooper, that there was a singular gaffe. It was a series of gaffes… that add up to the appearance of people wanting to get a particular piece of equipment for their own purposes and avoiding the standard processes which would open it up to scrutiny in so doing. And that’s a serious gaffe no matter what it is that we’re talking about. We could be talking about pencil erasers. If you circumvent the process, or even give the appearance of circumventing the process, you need to be called to account.

It’s not satisfactory, so I understand people’s anger.

JK: To me, it’s suddenly a large armored attack vehicle sprouted up in our town last week, and I think people right now are wondering how it happened. And they’re not buying it. You know, I think that’s the reason for the speculation as to whether I was involved; they’re not buying the explanation that’s being given. It strains credulity… to say that every step of the way we just had a rational decision to never tell the city commission, or the former mayor, or the current mayor, or the public.

SK: It’s an issue of health and safety. It’s also an issue of how do we protect our health and safety. Policing is, as far as I know, a science and an art. I’m no expert on it, but I know that the use of violence, the use of force, is a very sensitive subject. What this appears to be is the lack of any sensitivity, subtlety, or outreach to the public about how we want to be policed. Was there an outcry for this? Was there a demand coming from the grassroots? There was no such thing. This came from the police force, and now there is this massive hulk of a vehicle. Which is ominous. And aggressive. And I think the police department and the sheriff’s department should answer to that charge of escalating the sense of threat and danger in this community by their actions.

BM: Sharing their voices through the media, the people feel lied to, and there has been a culture of spin of this issue from the City administration. This morning on a KMMS radio station, Mr. Kukulski put blame on the media, at one point even his own city clerk. This is maddening and people are openly frustrated on the streets of town, so how do we restore the public trust?

JK: I need help from those outside looking in. I put it on the agenda for the next city commission meeting—again—so I’m trying to take those steps, right? First, let’s shine a light on it. You know, sunshine is a sanitizing thing. Shine a light on it, ask people’s opinion about it, have a public hearing, and have a vote. I think those things should have happened a year ago.

But even more than that, I’ve tried to come up with some ideas, like rolling back the amount that gets called out to us from the payables. It’s like half a million now, because we have so many controls in place, we have a capital improvements plan, we have a budget, we have… every year we talk to the police about what they want. They never came to us and said, “We want a big vehicle that we can face down a rifleman.” You know, never. And you know, we have things in the capital improvements plan that are, like, lawnmowers, woodchippers, and lots of things where the last column says, “Funding unknown.” So, it’s not the case that we always know where the funding is.

So, we have so many things in place. The capital improvements plan is a little more long-range than the budget, that’s a little shorter-range. Then, looking at anything that’s unusual or expensive getting called out by the city manager of the city staff. I think I’m gonna roll that back to $100,000, and I’m gonna ask the commission to concur with that.

But all of those kinds of things feel a little bit like distrust to me. A little bit. Even though I’m a CPA and I fully believe in internal controls, it feels like I’m gonna need to put in more. Because I’m not as trusting as I was last week. And I’m not sure that’s where I think we should be going, because I think the city commission, especially in a town like Bozeman, should be occupying this policy ground and not this sort of staff function of internal control. But if we have to do that, I think I’m the guy that can figure out the internal controls for making sure the process isn’t circumvented again.

And a larger issue for me is… just reaching out to the public, you know, and explaining what happened in a very simple way, in a clear way. Making those apologies and, well, moving on.

BM: Mr. Kirchhoff, I’ve heard people demanding resignations, firings, sending the BearCat back has been a popular reaction. Given your long experience in civic administration, what do you propose the constituents and elected commissioners of Bozeman do now?

SK: Well, in regards to the city staff issue, I would defer obviously to the commission. There are processes to review employees and there are ways to censure employees. That is a possibility, and that might make people happier.

But I think what would make people happiest is if they knew we were at least gonna have a discussion where we would talk about sending the BearCat back. We don’t have to keep it just because we have it. We can sell it, we can send it back to where it came from. There are options available. And I think that gesture, and the public reaction it brings—those would both be great things, that would bring us back to where we were before we had this erosion of trust. Which is the biggest deal to the representatives; if you’re not trusted by the people that you’re entrusted to represent, then you lost that compact between you. And we sure don’t want that.

JK: And give it back. I’m not signing any petitions, or anything, before we have a public hearing. But I think I’ve been pretty clear about this, I do not welcome the sudden appearance of this vehicle in our town. We have to restore the status quo, which is not having this vehicle. Does that mean it goes over to the National Guard? Or, I don’t even know, if once they find out that we never approved this grant, if the Department of Homeland Security will say, “That’s not your vehicle… ‘cause you don’t have a valid grant. We want our 250,000 bucks back.” And where we go from that, I don’t know. Because it’s never been blessed by the governing body. So what will the feds say? Will they repudiate the grant? Is the grant valid because we never blessed it? And then it would go on to who would keep it.

You asked Steve about whether five other towns have them. I think he was saying and I was saying, Bozeman is its own town. And we need to make the right decision that’s right for Bozeman, Montana.

We also need to make a decision for the other entities that are in our town. You know, I’m not sure what Gallatin County will think of this, but I don’t want it. I want to either give it back or give it to the National Guard, or whatever it is to get us back to square one, back to last October. If we wanna have a discussion about trust then, trusting the police, trusting the administration of the city, then that’s a different subject. But first get us back to, you know, before the original sin, theologically speaking.

SK: Yeah. Significant harm has been done to the people’s trust; they’re now more afraid of law enforcement then they maybe have a right to, but now that right’s been lost because of this surreptitious purchase, because of this menacing hulk. Now they’ve lost their trust in law enforcement, they’re afraid of law enforcement. Law enforcement is taking an aggressive posture in the community, that’s not in any sort of response to a human outcry from the people of this community. And it’s happening independent of their will, and it looks like it’s contrary to their will. So I mean, significant actions have taken place. And not just symbolic ones, not just a hand slap. Like, well, “We talked about it, so let’s just let the dust settle, and move on, and learn from our experience.”

No, I think, like Jeff said, the door should be opened to stronger possible actions, including getting the BearCat outta here.

JK: You know, one of the reasons I invited Steve here, and Franke Wilmer chimed in on it, too, on Facebook, and she had some really, really good links to The Wall Street Journal, I think it was, or The Washington Post, or some other people about this ‘militarization of the nation.’

I think Steve brings it up academically, this failure. Its more of a political science idea—and you know, I’m not the political scientist, I’m the practitioner, right?—which is, we just cut the trust, right in half, or in 2/3s, or eliminated it. And other people in this country are feeling that, too. The events of the last six months are not isolated. They’re not… We don’t operate in a vacuum here. This idea that we’ll just set aside everything that’s happening in the rest of the country, and just look at this as, well, “we’ve got it, so we’ll keep it.” It just belies what Steve at the university or Franke at the university would advise us to do, which is the political science perspective.

SK: Hey. I’m a political scientist. (Laughs.)

(What follows are excerpts from the continued conversation.)

JK: …and who’s zooming who? If you’re zooming me on the attack vehicle, what is it that I don’t know about the (Rouse Justice Center) bond issue? And I don’t think that’s a large leap in logic, right? I would still tell you that we’ve come up with a very viable plan to house those particular functions of city government, right? And there’s no reason for us to go backward on that. I feel a little like Anne of Green Gables—way too innocent—but I wouldn’t say I should second-guess my support for the bond. I know that people are doing that out there. And certainly, I understand that compulsion.

SK: Yeah. It goes to trust. What—I’m still operating in the dark, here—about the need for the BearCat. And you said that we’re all connected nationwide, but violent crimes have been on a steady decline for four decades. Arguably, Americans are safer now than they were in the 1970s, safer now than they were in the 1980s. We’re living in a safer place, and meanwhile law enforcement is in an arms race, with attack vehicles to… “keep you safe. I’m pointing the barrel of this gun at you to keep you safe.”

JK: …One of the things that I keep thinking about is, whatever the hundreds of millions that we’re spending on this, nationwide, there’s a lot better ways to make us safer. You take those investments and put them into programs that educate people or get them better jobs or allow them to bootstrap themselves up, holy cow, that makes us safer.

SK: …What do the cops and sheriffs think about the people, that (the BearCat) is what they need to do to “help the people?” To bring in a tank, the suspicion seems to be… it’s mistrust of the people. It’s a cognitive disconnect, it doesn’t add up. “We want to protect you by attacking you.” That doesn’t make sense.


CORRECTION in the author's note: The next Bozeman City Commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, 6 October 2014 at 6 p.m. in City Hall. As with any city commission meeting, there is a period very near the meeting's beginning that allows for members of the public to speak for up to three minutes to any topic within the purview of the City of Bozeman. Additionally, email correspondence may be sent to the mayor, the city commission, and city staff by addressing it to:

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