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Mass. sheriff department defends MRAP use

After local law enforcement unveiled a donated 36,000-pound armored vehicle, the St. Joseph/Buchanan County Special Response Team believed the expanded armored fleet is needed for the safety of Buchanan County.

"I don't think it's a need in the sense that 'We've got to have it, got to use it, got to get it out,' but we need that capability," said Sgt. Tiger Parsons with the Sheriff's Department and member of the SRT unit. "We have to have the capability to save someone's life, because the one time we would need it, but didn't have it, the public would be screaming 'Why didn't those deputies go in?'"

Last week, the Sheriff's Department received a $700,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, or MRAP, through a military surplus program.

The large, demilitarized vehicle was decommissioned and became a part of a U.S. Department of Defense program that designates vehicles available to local law enforcement across the country.

Expanding the fleet

The MRAP is not the first armored vehicle designated to the St. Joseph Police Department, Buchanan County Sheriff's Department or jointly used by the SRT unit.

In March, the police purchased a tactical, armored vehicle named the Bearcat to protect officers, victims and other parties in critical situations.

At the cost of more than $300,000, Parsons said the Bearcat is an offensive tool, but has yet to be used in any local operation.

"The Bearcat has offense capabilities that the MRAP does not," Parsons said. "Another big difference is that the Bearcat is a lot more maneuverable."

Recently, SRT members were notified of the MRAP availability and traveled to Texas to drive the vehicle back to Buchanan County. Although much larger than the typical vehicle, Parsons said the new, defensive vehicle has one simple purpose -- safety.

"The MRAP is basically just a big chunk of rolling armor and it doesn't have any weapons or any offensive capabilities," he said. "It is merely capable of moving officers, civilians, injured people or, you name it, through an area."

Prior to the acquisition of the Bearcat, police used a U.S. Air Force surplus vehicle called Peacekeeper from a Kansas City-metro law enforcement agency about eight years ago.

"As those vehicles began to go out of service for the Air Force, there was a government program that agencies could get and use these," said police Capt. Jeff Wilson.  "Kansas City ended up with five or six of them and as the years went along ... they gave us their Peacekeeper that they were taking out of service."

After years of use, officers began to have mechanical issues with the Peacekeeper that jeopardized operations.

"In most cases, we only had one that couldn't even make it to the scene," he said. "We actually lost (the use of) the Peacekeeper on the way to several scenes where we'd have to abandon it and later send a (tow company) for it."

Parsons estimated that the SRT team jointly used the Peacekeeper for several years, but problems continued to mount. He said the unit used the Peacekeeper between five and eight times a year, but the vehicle quickly became more problematic than effective, prompting the search for the Bearcat.

Military assist

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Defense handed 165 military fighting vehicles formerly used in Iraq to various law enforcement agencies as part of a military surplus program. The Defense Logistics Agency oversees the disbursement of 13,000 MRAPs to 780 domestic law enforcement agencies on waiting lists for vehicles.

Nearly 28,000 of the vehicles were produced between 2007 and 2012, with 24,059 fielded to Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, it was noted that $4.2 billion in equipment, including tanks and grenade launchers, has been donated nationwide.

Although Buchanan County is not quite comparable to Afghanistan, Parsons said the common criticism surrounding local authorities gaining ownership to armored vehicles is the militarization of local law enforcement.

"We aren't fighting two wars anymore, so I think the military is no longer in need of all these heavily armored vehicles," he said. "We are not trying to take away people's guns or take control of individuals. All America's police force is doing is responding to the advancement in criminals."

'A different world'

"I've been doing this for 23 years, and 23 years ago, you'd find a guy with a .38 special in his front pocket," Parsons said. "Now, we find guys with AK47s and ballistic vests. It is a different world."

He stressed that the MRAP will be stored in a Sheriff's Department-owned facility in the county, and every SRT member will undergo testing to operate the vehicle. If and when agencies are called to use either the Bearcat or the MRAP, the safety of civilians, officers and the general public is always the first concern.

"This is just another capability that we've added to our tool belt," he said.

"I pray that we are never in a situation that requires their use, but this is not about intimidation, it's not about presence, it's not about the militarization of our department, it is simply about our community's safety."

kristin.hoppa@newspressnow.com

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