MARIETTA - Some people question why the Washington County Sheriff's Office is spending nearly $190,000 to acquire a pair of armored vehicles, while others say that in an era when unthinkable violence seems to break out in the unlikeliest of places, the expenditure makes sense.
"Ten years ago, I would say, 'Why?'" said Ron Surella, 59, of Devola. "Today I think it's a lot easier to appreciate, unfortunately."
"If the ultimate purpose is officer safety, and with the amount of violent crime that is going on throughout the country, in very unsuspecting areas, then to be able to protect our officers and to be able to protect citizenry, then I would be in favor of it," he said.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Warden circles the armored Peacekeeper vehicle the office has used for years. It will be replaced by a pair of new vehicles the department is acquiring early next year
Reno resident Sam Ludtman, 20, said the vehicles and other military-grade equipment law enforcement agencies around the country have been acquiring seem "above and beyond" anything that's been needed in the past.
"I'm sure there are legitimate uses," he said. But "I think there are different ways we can handle situations instead of going to extremes with - it's basically an armored tank."
The sheriff's office has ordered two BearCat vehicles from Massachusetts-based Lenco Armored Vehicles. The first is a refurbished model, which will cost $134,414. After it had been ordered, the department learned it had received a $199,000 federal grant it applied for through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go toward a new BearCat G3 model.
*? The BearCat is an armored vehicle that protects law enforcement officers and allows them to approach potentially deadly situations under the cover of an armored, mobile bunker.
*? It is currently used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in large cities and rural areas.
*? The BearCat is constructed of certified, U.S.-manufactured armor materials and has successfully defeated multi-hit attacks from high-powered rifles firing armor piecing ammunition.
*? The BearCat has been under direct arms fire in the U.S. law enforcement community in dozens of separate incidences around the country. Each time the ballistic and blast attacks were defeated, and Lenco vehicles were credited with saving lives.
*? The vehicle has been used to evacuate citizens who lived nearby a dangerous incident.
*? Unlike military armored vehicles, the BearCat is built on a commercial truck chassis as a platform and is readily serviceable at local dealers and independent repair centers.
Source: Lenco Armored Vehicles, www.lencoarmor.com
The sheriff's office will pay an additional $55,038 on the second vehicle. Sheriff Larry Mincks said he considers both purchases necessary to protect deputies facing armed suspects.
"I think that certainly is money well spent," he said. "How do you put a price on a person's life?"
After a story on the county establishing a fund to receive the grant money was posted on MariettaTimes.com, site users expressed skepticism over the need for the vehicles and the cost they would incur for the initial purchase and maintenance.
Asked whether the money could have been spent to instead increase manpower, Mincks said the office is "pretty close to where we want to be on the road" and while having more investigators would always help, officer safety is vital.
"I made that decision to spend that money for the BearCats because I hope it saves somebody's life," he said.
The BearCats, expected to be delivered in the early part of 2014, have a higher armor rating than the vehicle they will replace, a Peacekeeper built on the chassis of a 1978 Dodge truck.
The sheriff's Special Response Team trains with the vehicle once a month and it was most recently dispatched to provide mutual aid at an armed standoff situation in Meigs County. It also was used in response to a similar incident in Athens County over the summer.
But it takes a lot of regular maintenance to make sure the Peacekeeper can even make those longer trips, said Chief Deputy Mark Warden.
"You've got to keep these things ready to go at a moment's notice," he said.
A cost for that maintenance was not immediately available Tuesday, but Warden expects the newer vehicles to obviously require less.
"Since these are all going to be new and refurbished, I would say the maintenance is going to be minimal," Mincks said. "It's certainly not going to be anything like the upkeep of a helicopter," which the department had from 1995 to January 2011.
The last time Warden recalls the Peacekeeper being deployed to a barricade or hostage situation was in 2011, when an Athens County man held a woman at knifepoint in her Little Hocking home for about an hour. Officers talked the man into exiting the house before the vehicle arrived.
"It's (the BearCat) one of (those) vehicles where you hope you never, ever have to use it, but when the time comes, you thank God you got it," Warden said.
The vehicles would be used to get officers closer to a place where an armed suspect has barricaded himself or herself and secure the perimeter in such situations, Mincks said.
"Before, we had to put officers out there in flak jackets to maintain the perimeter," he said, saying that arrangement had the potential to make the deputies "sitting ducks."
Mincks noted there have been times when local law enforcement officers were shot and even killed in the line of duty. In 2008, a deputy survived being shot in the face by a man who subsequently barricaded himself in his home.
The sheriff's office at one time had a second armored vehicle, a Brink's truck, Warden said. But only the front cab was armor-plated; bullets would have gone right through the sides of the trailer.
"It was not conducive to troop transport in a hostile environment," he said.
The new BearCat being funded primarily with federal money would be outfitted with chemical sensors and other items to make it useful in the instance of a fire at a chemical plant, Mincks said. Because funding came through the Corps of Engineers, it would be expected to be used when needed at incidents involving locks and dams in the Corps' Huntington district.
Both vehicles will have rams to which equipment could be attached to inject tear gas or mount a camera system. Mincks said he's looking at having his own personnel attach such items.
According to Lenco's website, the armor plating on a BearCat has withstood attacks not only from high-caliber guns but also hand grenades and improvised explosive devices.
In a letter submitted to the Times, Ludtman questions whether that level of protection is needed here.
"I wonder when (was) the last time we saw a 'terrorist' barricading himself in downtown Marietta with a rocket launcher, a 50-caliber heavy machine gun and planted mines under the brick streets?" he said.
Waterford resident April Lewis, 50, said with news of attacks in workplaces and schools it makes sense to have high-grade equipment that hopefully won't have to be used.
"I think it's maybe a good idea for prevention because of all the things that are happening, and our area isn't immune to that," she said.