NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—City police are rolling out a new vehicle that once served as a "radio/communications vehicle" for the US military, adding a second mobile precinct to the department's fleet.
In photographs taken in Buccleuch Park, the six-wheeled truck appears to be larger than any other in the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) vehicle, including its police boat and existing mobile precinct.
Authorities say the vehicle will be deployed on city streets "over the next few weeks," and that it will "most likely be seen throughout various city neighborhoods where the department’s Neighborhood Police Teams patrol."
In a press release touting the new vehicle, NBPD Captain JT Miller wrote that it will also be making appearances "on Easton Avenue during upcoming Rutgers Big Ten football games."
Provided through the Department of Defense's controversial "1033" program, which hands over surplus military equipment to police departments across the nation at little or no cost, the new vehicle cost the city nothing.
It's part of a package of equipment worth $243,000 being given to the NBPD via the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).
City police also received five workstations, four laptop computers, an infrared illuminator, and a coffee-maker valued at $238, as we reported in 2014.
The program began in 1997 and, as of last year, had distributed $4.3 billion worth of items to local law enforcement.
But the entire program came under fire after military equipment was deployed against peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the controversial killing of 19-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014.
Now, the governing bodies that oversee police agencies must specifically vote to enter the "1033" program, the result of a change in policy that took effect earlier this year in response to the controversy.
Police officials compared the new vehicle to the existing mobile precinct, unit #950, a much smaller box truck.
"It's going to be equipped as a small office like the other precinct is," Miller told the City Council in September, adding that it is about eighteen years old and won't last much longer.
"Hopefully we can have them both out there at the same time but eventually the old one will die, so we'll be replacing that one."
"The original mobile police precinct continues to serve the police department and our communities well," said NBPD Director Anthony Caputo, according to the release. "It is always a welcome addition to any neighborhood where it is deployed."
In May, the New Brunswick City Council voted unanimously to continue participating in the "1033" program.
Just days earlier, President Barack Obama visited New Jersey to announce he was adding new restrictions to prevent the military from giving away armored vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonets and large caliber weapons.
"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like it's an occupying force as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," Obama said.
Miller did not immediately answer an emailed question from NBToday about whether or not the new military vehicle might be dispatched to the scene of peaceful protests or other disturbances.
But his press release indicated at least one "secondary use" for the vehicle, in addition to its function as a mobile precinct.
"Although the primary use of the new vehicle will be for community policing and as a mobile precinct, a secondary use was envisioned as well," reads a press release issued by the NBPD, which pointed out the vehicle is able to traverse flooded roadways and potentially make rescues.
"Because of the vehicle’s high wheel base and 6×6 driving capabilities, the vehicle will serve as an emergency response vehicle in the event of flooding similar to the events experienced during Hurricane’s Floyd and Irene and Superstorm Sandy."
According to its odometer, the 2011 AM General 6×6 Utility Truck has been driven less than 5o0 miles. The federal government valued the vehicle at $111,395.
The city had the vehicle since September 2014, noting it was in "remarkable condition," but only recently completed its efforts to retrofit it to serve as a "mobile community police precint."
"The police department gave the vehicle a fresh coat of paint and retrofitted the interior," the release reads.
Caputo, who is known for coming out of retirement to lead the department for a second time, and for presiding over NBPD during some of its biggest controversies, said he hoped the vehicle would help improve the relationship between the police and the community.
"I look forward to this new vehicle being just as successful and well received as the original, and I am confident it will serve as another tool which improves the community policing efforts of our officers,” Caputo said.
The Director invited "any resident or visitor to walk up to the mobile precinct and say hello to our officers," according to the release.
"Face to face, friendly communication between the public and the police is the best way to improve positive relationships and strengthen the bonds between the police and the neighborhoods we are committed to serve.”
Less than an hour after the NBPD press release was issued, the City Council voted to approve the department's efforts to obtain a new prisoner transportation van, unreleated to the "1033" program.
Captain Miller confirmed the department is going to go through a public bidding process to obtain a new prisoner van from a private company.
"The one we have now is outdated," said Captain Miller, referring to unit #947, a police van often seen parked behind City Hall.
Miller told Council President Kevin Egan the new vehicle would be used for transporting prisoners to the Middlesex County Adult Corrections Center in North Brunswick.
But if the new "prisoner transportation vehicle" is anything like its forerunner, it might be more likely to see action on the streets of the Hub City.
In 2011, following the killing of a city resident named Barry Deloatch, both a protest leader and an innocent bystander were arrested at the scene and thrown in the back of #947.
Unit #947 was also summoned in December 2014, during the massive protest following the decision of the grand jury in the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, as police prepared to massively arrest protesters blocking Route 27 near the Hyatt Hotel.
It's not clear if residents should expect the new prisoner transport van to be much bigger than the original. Miller said it was too soon to estimate how many people the new one would seat.
"We haven't gotten that far yet. It has to be retroffited," he said adding the final details would depend who responds to the advertisement with a bid.
In April, the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholder approved paying $166,444 to Mt. Holly-based Wolfington Bus Company for a "prisoner transport and evacuation" bus.
Captain Miller said the vehicle NBPD is looking to purchase is not a bus, but rather a van.
While police in many other communities like Piscataway and Dunnellen have received assault rifles or other military weapons through the "1033" program, the NBPD has not yet received any weapons from the U.S. military.
Part of the new restrictions on the program require law enforcement to provide additional certifications and assurances before receiving explosives or equipment specifically to deal with riots.