City Council voted Thursday to approve the purchase of a $400,000 armored tactical vehicle, intended to help the San Antonio Police Department’s SWAT team respond to active shooter situations and natural disasters.
The military-style vehicle called “The Rook” will be paid for by an urban area security grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Management Agency, but City Council had to approve the purchase.
It did so amid concerns from the council’s progressive members, who questioned the police department’s need for military-grade equipment. The purchase was approved 8-2, with council members Teri Castillo (D5) and Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) voting against. Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda was not present for the vote.
“The Rook can transport personnel, equipment and provide real-time video surveillance, giving commanders on the ground, there at the scene, the necessary intelligence to make fully informed decisions,” SAPD Deputy Chief Karen Falks told the council. “There’s no other asset that we have that can provide this type of technology.”
Photos of the Rook on the Ring Power Corp. website show four officers in tactical gear crouched behind the vehicle while aiming their guns at a closed double door. The Rook comes with optional features, moves on tracks like a tank and is built on a Caterpillar compact track loader chassis.
The city plans to purchase one with an “armored deployment platform” that can hold up to four officers and is “equipped with two locking gun ports,” according to Ring’s website.
Falks said SAPD could have used the Rook to respond to a standoff in Stone Oak last month, where police waited out a suspect inside an apartment for four days to avoid unnecessary injuries.
McKee-Rodriguez pointed to a 2018 Princeton University study that found “the routine use of militarized police tactics” threatened to “further the historic tensions between marginalized groups” and local agencies and “with no detectable public safety benefit.”
“This is a trend where a group of Black and brown people get together, they’re protesting, and all of a sudden it’s considered violent,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We can all sit here and say, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be used that way.’ I’m sure other places where it is happening said the same thing.”
City Manager Erik Walsh noted that the city doesn’t participate in a military program that passes down equipment to police departments.
“I think the police department and the city are extremely sensitive” to “the relationship with the community and how we utilize equipment, even more so over the last few years,” said Walsh.
Still, council members wanted to know exactly how the Rook would be used and sought assurances that it wouldn’t be deployed to control large gatherings.
Pointing to lawsuits involving Austin police officers’ handling of protesters in 2020, Castillo asked Falks whether she could guarantee the Rook would not be deployed at a protest.
“What I can tell you is, it won’t be deployed at a peaceful protest,” said Falks.
Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) defended the acquisition, suggesting the vehicle was little more than a piece of construction equipment, and that the San Antonio Police Department could be trusted to use its judgment on its utilization.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where some wicked police chief would say, ‘Deploy the Bobcat to quell the insurrection,'” Palaez said.
Falks said San Antonio’s SWAT team is responsible for responding to emergencies in 13 counties.
“The durability and versatility of the Rook will enhance community safety and officer safety and efficiency as its ballistic protection and mobility and function allow for the safe approach, movement and clearing of structures during critical incidents,” said Falks.
That idea appealed to some council members who were skeptical of the tool, but wanted to provide police with added protection.
“I think it’s much more likely that we’re going to save lives, hopefully, than have a violent protest in San Antonio,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7).