A large armored vehicle built to survive driving over mines now is being used to get SWAT team members safely in and out of calls.
A bullet from a high-powerful rifle can easily pierce both sides of a typical squad car, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office SWAT commander Maj. Jerry Pickett said.
But no weapon that someone would have in their home is going to penetrate the thick armor plating on the armored vehicle, which the county is using to drive officers to the scene and take cover behind before entering a home, he said.
The mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, costs the military about $750,000 when its built for driving into dangerous parts of Afghanistan, Sheriff Doug Cox said. The county got its MRAP for free, with Cox spending about $5,000 to drive it back from Texas and repaint the sand-colored vehicle dark green.
The vehicle came from the military surplus program, which allows police departments to get out-of-use military equipment for free. All they have to pay for is the cost to either ship or pick up the items they want.
It replaces the county’s current armored vehicle, which is nearly 20 years old and also came from military surplus, Cox said. The $5,000 he spent from the jail’s commissary fund is much less than even a new squad car, he said.
The sheriff’s office used the new vehicle for the first time in May, when a man who was involved in a stabbing had locked himself in his home and wouldn’t come out. Police said he was intoxicated and had stabbed another person earlier in the evening. Officers used the SWAT team to enter the house and arrest him.
The vehicle could have been useful in situations like a shooting in Martinsville in 2011, when a man starting shooting at two county deputies and a Franklin officer in his basement, Cox said.
Local police departments also have used the surplus program to get M-16 rifles that deputies carry in their vehicles. The sheriff’s office has more than 30 rifles from the surplus program, and Franklin has eight. Greenwood police don’t have any surplus items, but police do check the postings for items that might be useful. For example, Greenwood Assistant Police Chief Matt Fillenwarth said he would snap up new gas masks if they were available, since they can cost $300 to $500 each.
The program has allowed the county to get military gear that could help officers in a dangerous SWAT engagement, without needing to use tax dollars, Cox said. If no one takes the military surplus items, they either sit unused or are recycled. If or when police no longer need a particular item, they can return it to the military, Cox said.
“The ones that didn’t find a home were going to be cut up for scrap. Why would I let something like that rust on a parking lot somewhere?” Cox said.
The county SWAT team gets called out about 10 to 15 times per year because police expect a suspect could try to harm officers, Pickett said. The new vehicle, which holds up to 10 people, can get close to a house where someone might be waiting inside with a semiautomatic rifle, and SWAT team members can take cover behind it to prepare to enter the home, he said.
“A rifle round from your AR-15s or the SKS, those things go through a car windshield or car door like a hot knife through butter. You wouldn’t use a patrol car to go up on a SWAT detail,” he said.
The new armored vehicle mostly will be used to protect SWAT team members but also could be used to drive through high water during a flood or cross snowy roads during a bad winter storm, since it’s built to handle any kind of terrain, Cox said.
An MRAP is oversized for any situation a police officer would face, but retrofitting one for SWAT use makes more sense than trying to buy something new, Fillenwarth said. He looked at prices for a
Lenco BearCat, an armored truck that could be used by police, but the vehicle would cost around $285,000 new, so Greenwood could never afford it.
Fillenwarth has browsed the military surplus listings for gear before, but typically the newest and most useful gear is claimed quickly by other police departments across the U.S. The military has portable generators or dump trucks that are available, but city police wouldn’t need or use them frequently, he said. The police department does take part in a different military program, which allows the city to keep two night-vision rifle scopes as long as Greenwood pays to maintain them, he said.
The sheriff’s office has looked for other items in the past, such as a new water rescue boat, but wasn’t able to find a good one, Cox said. In past years, the sheriff’s office also had some military fatigues and helmets, as well as the rifles and armored truck, he said.
Getting surplus items from the military can save money but also has additional reporting requirements, Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said. The federal government requires quarterly reports as well as serial number checks twice per year. O’Sullivan glances at surplus items a few times a year but hasn’t claimed anything other than the rifles, because the city doesn’t need anything badly enough to go through the additional paperwork, he said.
“It is a really neat program in that you can get items from surplus without double dipping on their tax dollars since it’s already bought and paid for,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a good program. It’s just a difficult process.”