In spite of social media backlash, the Omaha City Council unanimously approved a new armored vehicle for the Omaha Police Department Tuesday, Nov. 1.

The $341,678 Lenco BearCat G3 will replace an older vehicle owned by OPD. Deputy Chief Scott Gray pushed back against a “social media narrative” calling the vehicle a tank.

“It’s not a military vehicle, it’s not designed for combat operations,” Gray said. “This vehicle is specifically designed for law enforcement work.”

Gray said the BearCat is basically a commercial truck — in this case a Ford F-550 Chassis — with a “protective skin” built on. He said it’s more similar to an armored bank truck than a combat vehicle. 

While there was significant backlash on social media — including from State Sen. Megan Hunt — only one opponent spoke during Tuesday’s meeting. Alex Heyden said that although the vehicle isn’t military equipment, it would be viewed as militarization by the public.

“We certainly want the safety of our police officers, but part of that safety is legitimacy in the eyes of the public,” Heyden said. 

Lieutenant Jake Ritonya said the current armored vehicle was used 137 times in the past year for dangerous situations like hostage rescue or barricades. He said it’s a useful tool for keeping officers safe when firearms are involved, and allow them to de-escalate situations. The police department has two SWAT vehicles: the existing armored truck and a non-armored van.

Ritonya pointed to last week’s hostage rescue at an Omaha motel. He said the department’s BearCat was down for maintenance, so he had to call the FBI to borrow a vehicle.

“The new truck, obviously, is going to be a replacement for the old,” Ritonya said. “It needs to be reliable.”

The current vehicle has been in use since 2006, and Ritonya said the weight of the armor has taken a toll on its suspension. The new BearCat will be safer to drive on urban streets, as well as off road, which is useful for searching for armed parties in fields. Ritonya said it will have more spotlights, a 360 degree camera and a larger capacity fuel cell.

Funding for the purchase comes from the 2023 budget. Gray said the budget for staffing and other police services like mental health co-responders will be unaffected.

Councilmember Brinker Harding said improving the police department’s equipment is important to public safety, and he compared it to new equipment for the fire department. He pushed back against militarization comments, and said that some police departments do use surplus military vehicles, but OPD does not.

“There are a couple reasons we don’t do that,” Harding said. “One is certainly the cost…but more specifically it’s because it’s designed for military purposes and it’s not designed for police services, which this vehicle is.”

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners approved $300,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for the Nebraska Museum of Industry and Labor at 60th and Grover Streets.

The funding will assist the Nebraska Center for Workforce Development and Education to construct the museum. State Sen. Mike McDonnell, as president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, said the museum is part of an effort to educate youth about working in the trades.

“What we’re trying to do is honor the past, but we’re also looking at a partnership going forward,” McDonnell said.

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