The SWAT vehicle evolves

On a bitter cold, snowy Monday in December 2013 Fond du Lac, Wisconsin SWAT responded to a call of a barricaded subject armed with .50 caliber armor-piercing rounds. The suspect had already opened fire on initial responding officers as they arrived.

Earlier in the day the subject was suspected of having lit a family home on fire before fleeing to this second location, a multi-family apartment complex. Now SWAT—Crisis Negotiations initiated telephone contact with the suspect while other officers gathered information. They determined the suspect was in possession of a stockpile of ammunition, ballistic shields and vests; and more firearms. Furthermore, over the course of a several-hour standoff it became known that four innocent civilians were inside the complex.

Officer Ben Colwin was tasked with developing a plan to get them out without alerting the suspect. “I recognized that the only way we were going to be able to safely extract the citizens was if we approached from the west side of the building. This was the only side that the suspect could not see us approach from,” recalled Colwin. On the west side of the yard was a very steep, icy embankment that might otherwise pose a challenge to a smooth rescue.

In a stroke of good timing, perhaps, the agency had acquired its first armored vehicle, thanks to the generosity of the local Joe and Dawn Colwin Family Foundation. The manufacturer had thrown in a tire upgrade for good measure.

“One of our motivations [in purchasing the vehicle] was to have it as an immediate response vehicle and our team did just that; they had it on scene in short-order,” says Fond du Lac Police Chief William Lamb.

The SWAT team used two other vehicles to help maintain the integrity of the perimeter with ballistic protection. They then drove the new armored vehicle over the embankment, cleared the ground by less than one inch and backed it right up to the building.

Lamb remembers, “The shield team went in and we were able to coordinate and get those innocent civilians safely out of their apartments into our armed vehicle. We got them out of there.”

From bread truck to beast

Years ago, a police department’s designated ‘SWAT vehicle’ likely would not withstand .50 rounds or traverse steep embankments like it was nothing. These earlier mobile task masters didn’t have much in the way of ballistic protection, heavy-duty tires or shooting platforms. Rather, they were usually glorified vans—16-passenger “raid vans” or “bread trucks” that could fit twelve or so people inside.

Chris Amon, special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is currently assigned to ATF public affairs but is also a part-time crisis negotiator assigned to the Washington D.C. special response team. “Like most SWAT teams, when situations rise to a higher level, that’s when we call in the SRT,” says Amon. For example, to serve a high-risk warrant or to arrest a suspect with a propensity for exceptional violence. Amon’s team depends on the added protection armed vehicles offer in his role of negotiator.

“My role is to ensure that I can open a line of communication with the suspect. And you can’t do that if you’re worried about bullets whizzing over your head.

“From ATF’s point of view, we go after the worst of the worst criminal,” says Amon. The team’s near 17,000-pound, 16-passenger BearCat provides security at least up until the point when officers get up, get out of the vehicle and head to the door.

The real steel

It’s no small investment. Lenco armored vehicles on display at SHOT Show in January were priced around $225,000.

“I don’t know what the gas tank holds, but I know it gets 3 to 4 miles to the gallon,” Lamb recalls his officers had to stop for gas more than a few times when they picked up the vehicle and made their way from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.

Lenco’s BearCat, the same vehicle used by Amon and Fond du Lac PD, is built in Pittsfield in the hills of Western Massachusetts. Lenco cut its teeth manufacturing armored bank, cash and transit trucks, as well as up-armored tactical vehicles for forces in Latin America and Europe. They switched exclusively to the U.S. law enforcement market in the late nineties.

Normal bank trucks have a fairly modest armor rating; traditionally they will withstand 9mm handguns. Today the company’s Bear and BearCat models are known for their armor protection. “A lot of the armor on the bank trucks is the same material we would use on our bench seats today” says Lenny Light, Lenco’s vice president and general manager. Lenco uses Mil-Spec military-grade steel on all of its vehicles. Every piece of steel is shipped to Aberdeen, Maryland and tested to ensure it meets U.S. Army requirements. Both glass and steel are designed to withstand .50 caliber rounds.

In the vest industry, NIJ regulates products and materials closely. There is no similar oversight body in the armored vehicle trade. However, the Department of Defense and state department do regulate the materials, as well as the production process, utilized in the construction of vehicles used in the military. This is the standard to which Lenco builds. “The same materials, standards, and procedures we use for state department vehicles and our U.S. Navy vehicles and our U.S. Air Force vehicles, we all use those for our U.S. SWAT vehicles as well,” says Light.

Throughout the year they’ll build a handful of demo vehicles, as some customers want ready and available. But for the most part, every truck in production has been “spec-ed out” by an end-user and designed in 3D Solid Works by the engineering team, and then goes through the production process until inspected and delivered.

Pulling double-duty

Heavy-duty armored vehicles are making sense to more agencies as they respond to an ever-increasing number of active shooter situations and similar circumstances where suspects are armed to the teeth. Slowly, this one-time niche industry is picking up speed. And some manufacturers are getting creative. The company Ring Power in St. Augustine, Florida makes an Armored Critical Incident Vehicle that’s smaller in size but still heavy duty. The Rook comes with several attachments that can be purchased as a package. Law enforcement teams use the vehicle for barricade and crowd control scenarios in particular.

With the Rook officers can pull up on site and maintain cover. “They can approach a house or go through a mall and they don’t have to expose themselves,” says Shaun Mitchell, assistant vice president and general manager of Tactical Solutions and Ring Power.

The vehicle’s low ground pressure maneuvers it to the backside of houses, down stairs or through narrow hallways. When it’s not being used for SWAT purposes the Rook can move cars (forklift-style) or help with storm cleanup…operators could even attach a snow blower to help clear roads.

The machine itself holds one person, but the company offers rear and front armored deployment platforms that fit five a-piece. The armored platform elevates for second-story entries.

“Say you’ve got a rural area where there’s a house and no cover anywhere. You can take that platform, drop it off and have a team right next to a situation behind Level 4 armor,” says Mitchell.

The Rook is on its fourth-generation of design and each vehicle is custom-built. Users recently requested tapered sides on the platform, slide-in side panels, more glass and better visibility. The company also added a gas-deployment system.

It’s wired for investigating, too. Low-light, infrared cameras on the vehicle transmit video feedback to a command center. There’s one camera inside the machine, two in the front of the platform, and then five on the end of the ram: top, bottom, sides and an infrared in front.

Pennsylvania State Police recently purchased two Rooks. Says Mitchell, “We’re re-designing one of the escape hatches to make for an easier exit; if they had to exit the machine it’s actually an exit and a shooting point. But yes, we’re always innovating, trying to make it better.”

In October of last year the Fort Pierce (Florida) Police Department obtained a 61,700-pound Mine-Resistent Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) with 5,000 miles on it through the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the Security of Defense to transfer excess DOD personal property to federal, state and local law enforcement. The MRAP retails for $700,000 but cost the department $2,000. With military operations winding down overseas, it raises the question of how many more vehicles will become available down the line.

“Its primary purpose will be to transport and protect our SWAT operators during dangerous tactical responses, but we’ll also use [it] as a rescue vehicle and command center. I really can’t imagine a situation that the MRAP won’t be able to handle,” says Fort Pierce Police Chief R. Sean Baldwin.

Assess your needs

The rules of tactical response are changing. Light says his business was very niche in the beginning, but with each year that passes armored vehicles become standard operating procedure. “The days of running up to a door with a shield on your arm…are over. You don’t have to do that anymore. You don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way like that. These trucks allow these guys to respond to situations in a different tactical way that keeps them safe.”

Lamb and Colwin firmly believe the rescue portion of their operation would not have been as successful without the vehicle and its tires. Says Lamb, “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. I reached out to the foundation…and I said I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure you saved lives on December 9.”

In the course of strategic planning Chief Lamb took a close look at Fond du Lac PD’s needs and decided this was one piece of equipment that was worth its weight and cost. Less than three years ago the agency lost an officer who was feloniously shot and killed. Not far from home, cities Brookfield and Oak Creek saw active shooter incidents, each within a relatively short period of time. For him, it just made sense.

“The simple fact of the matter is, we don’t have the luxury of hoping for the best. We need to prepare for the worst.

“Every chief or sheriff needs to decide what’s best for their community. We just determined that based on…some experiences but also perceived threats, it was a resource we had to pursue, and we were fortunate enough to get it.”