Chariots under fire

Trends in armored vehicles reflect security concerns in a post-9/11 SWAT force

     Visiting the Web sites of various armored vehicle manufacturers and checking out the images of their products in action is an unexpectedly enthralling experience. In one video, viewers see the B.E.A.R, a huge armored response vehicle manufactured by Lenco, completely demolishing a structure (where an alleged cop killer was hiding out) as if the place were made of paper and glue, turning it into little more than splinters and foundation. In another, viewers watch TACARM's Juggernaught, another armored vehicle with a long hydraulic boom arm, looking like some sort of mechanical prehistoric beast as it claws its way through roofs, breaks down doors and obliterates walls. And then there's the sheer size and carrying capacity of the Bulldog X, an armored vehicle manufactured by Alpine Armoring Inc. The sight of this behemoth lumbering onto the scene must be truly fear-inducing for the bad guys.

     Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, armored vehicles have been drawing a lot of interest from government entities such as the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Energy and, naturally, the Department of Defense. Law enforcement agencies all across the country have also shown interest.

     "Demand for armored vehicles has increased since [9/11]," says Steve Reopelle, president of TACARM. "Law enforcement recognized a need for armored vehicles designed specifically for them instead of [using] military surplus that is costly to maintain and is often unreliable." (See Page 74 for product information).

     Agencies are using the law enforcement-designed vehicles for serving high-risk warrants, rescuing officers, hostage situations, gang interventions and other callout circumstances where the risk to officers is high and consequently, so is the need for ballistic and blast protection, says Len Light, president of Lenco Armored Vehicles.

     Helping to fuel demand is the weaponry showing up on the streets these days. Consider the Kent Police Department SWAT team in Washington state.

     "My team has located a variety of large-bore hunting rifles, various assault rifles and numerous handguns," officer and SWAT team leader Bill Blowers says. "Crimes cover the gamut of UCR crimes from murder to vehicle theft. The team has had several officer-involved shootings in the past few years on barricaded-suspects calls."

     Blowers says Kent PD owns several armored vehicles and is in the process of adding more.

     "We average 50 to 60 callouts per year," he continues, "and the vehicles get used on almost all the missions in some fashion."

     And that's a key thing for agencies interested in buying an armored vehicle to consider, says Det. David Arnott, director of operations for the Florida SWAT Association, located in Longwood. Arnott, a 19-year veteran with the Orlando PD and assistant team leader on that agency's SWAT team, says departments should determine whether they need an armored vehicle, or if another form of ballistic protection — such as ballistic door panels — would work (see fire-suppression sidebar on Page 72).

     "Sometimes agencies will purchase an armored vehicle just to have a status symbol," Arnott explains. "There are agencies in Florida that have them and never use them."

     Depending on the bells and whistles, the average cost for an armored vehicle begins at $200,000. Adding accessories such as battering rams, backup cameras, hazmat detection devices, etc., adds to the purchase price. Arnott advises that agencies consider the accessory options carefully.

     "Just because it's an armored vehicle doesn't mean it's the right one," Arnott explains. "You have to know what kinds of weapons you are seeing and what the vehicle will actually protect against. For example, in Orlando we're seeing the big guns you'd normally find in the fighting fields of Iraq, like the AK-47. Recently, we dealt with two offenders that had high-powered automatic rifles."

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