SWAT Vehicles

Sergeant James Post

The saying on one of my favorite T-shirts reads, “It’s all fun and games until SWAT comes.”

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is often cited as being the origin of SWAT teams in America; however, the first SWAT team was actually formed in Philadelphia in 1964. This was a 100 man unit organized to combat bank robberies, a far cry from the activities they now perform around the country.

The LAPD SWAT team was actually created in 1967 after a series of civil disturbances. An officer (John Nelson) conceived the idea and presented the concept to then Inspector Darryl Gates and he authorized it. Their SWAT team consisted of 15 four man teams from the various precincts who were part-time members. The first significant deployment was a four hour confrontation with the Black Panther Party on December 9, 1969. The shoot-out was so horrendous and drawn out that Inspector Gates phoned the Department of Defense to request the loan of a grenade launcher!

LAPD’s SWAT unit became a permanent, dedicated, full-time unit in 1971, consisting of six ten man teams and assigned to Metro Division.

Coast to Coast

SWAT teams are now a crucial element of law enforcement agencies throughout the United States – regardless of their size. We normally think of the large cities, but, often, smaller agencies which police tourist attractions, nuclear power plants and other sensitive areas have full-time or part-time units. In 2005, American SWAT teams were deployed 50,000 times that year.

SWAT Transportation

Regardless of what these teams are named or the size or full-time/part-time status, they have to be able to respond to incidents in a swift, safe manner. Contemporary teams are fortunate in that there are a variety of vehicles available which fit that bill – either commercially built for this purpose or repurposed military vehicles – but it hasn’t always been this way.

Vehicles used by SWAT teams should meet a minimum criteria of being able to haul a number of officers in relative safety. The vehicles used by those early SWAT teams were frequently refurbished cash transfer armored cars. These had the requisite armor plating and bulletproof glass and most were diesel powered with dual rear wheels. Although seldom used, most even had gun ports. These weren’t fast, but they were very reliable and could carry four to six officers somewhat comfortably. Many times, larger teams used step or box vans, like those used by UPS. Although the carrying capacity was increased, they lacked the armor protection, unless they were retrofitted. Then, the military entered the arena.

Military Vehicles

Military hand-me-downs are nothing new to American law enforcement and have always benefited Law Enforcement (LE) agencies. From weapons to binoculars, from helmets to the olive drab wool blankets we carried in our trunks, we were always reminded of that connection. Nearly every state had at least one DOD depot where military surplus items could be claimed for a nominal transfer fee. And, of course, there were vehicles. The equipment hierarchy was that, after active duty, state National Guard and military reserve units had first choice, followed by local law enforcement.

The Duck

A few years before I started my LE career, a department commander with an extensive military background (in the department I ultimately joined) decided the department needed an amphibious vehicle because two major rivers transverse the city.

He appropriated a surplus Army DUKW. Popularly referred to as “Ducks,” these were manufactured from 1942 to 1945. They are six wheeled amphibious vehicles weighing 13,000 pounds and were active in WWII and crucial on the Normandy landing and other conflicts. They also saw action during the Korean War. When they became surplus after these wars, they became available to LE and civilians. Scores are still in use today at water attractions and one privately owned DUKW saw rescue duty in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

This brings us to my department’s Duck. The commander gathered all the department brass and city notables and they met at a lake in the city’s largest park for the maiden voyage. He drove into the lake and promptly sank because the Duck’s drain plugs were never installed. Suffice it to say, the department never placed it in service.

Years later, following civil disturbances across the country, my department obtained a surplus APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) for their tactical unit. It was affixed with a front battering ram and was used successfully on many operations. In one incident, a barricaded individual kept police at bay for several hours after he had shot and wounded two of the first responding officers. He seemed impervious to the many canisters of tear gas thrown into the house and he kept firing. The team finally rammed the APC (affectionately known as the “Love Bug”) through the front wall of the house where it partially fell into the basement, but the arrest was made without further injuries.

Fast forward to today: For over 20 years, under the federal government’s 10-33 program, the DOD has distributed military surplus equipment and vehicles to law enforcement throughout the country. This has included several types of tracked and wheeled vehicles, firearms and ammunition, grenade launchers, night vision optics, ballistic helmets and shields. Unfortunately, following riots and looting in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014, and copycat actions in other cities, the hand-me downs from DOD have all but ceased and many departments have had to return surplus items. The reason is President Obama’s issuance of Executive Order 13688 (EO 13688).

In announcing EO 13688, President Obama stated, “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there’s an occupying force.” He added, “The [military] equipment can alienate and intimidate residents and make them feel scared.” For 27 years of police work, I was always told that the police are a “quasi-military” organization. Hey, we wear uniforms, are armed and protect and serve. The main difference being that we (hopefully) get to go home instead of a tent after a tour of duty.

Here are the guts of EO 13688. There are two sections: Prohibited Equipment List and Controlled Equipment List. They govern federal funding which includes grants, loans, excess and surplus equipment transfers and forfeiture programs administered by a host of federal agencies, including the DOD, Homeland Security, the DOJ, the Department of Treasury and the Department of the Interior. All federal agencies must comply with the guidelines of EO 13688. In other words, you might still be able to get a surplus item, but be prepared for a long wait and a ton of paperwork.

Prohibited Equipment List

This list took effect May 18, 2015, and authorized the right to recall any previously issued item on the list. Prohibited items are 1) tracked armored vehicles (these have been very popular in areas where departments must contend with sand or heavy snow); 2) weaponized aircraft, vessels and vehicles of any kind; 3) grenade launchers (remember LAPD in 1969); 4) firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher; 5) bayonets; and 6) camouflage uniforms of a digital pattern (woodland and desert patterns are allowable, but may not be worn in urban or populous areas).

Controlled Equipment List

These items are still authorized for purchase by qualifying law enforcement agencies: 1) manned aircraft, fixed wing; 2) manned aircraft, rotary wing (helicopters); 3) unmanned aerial vehicles (drones; however, LE use of them is currently under close scrutiny by other federal agencies); 4) armored vehicles, wheeled (Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected [MRAP] and Armored Personnel Carriers [APC]); 5) tactical vehicles, wheeled (Humvee, 2.5 ton truck, five ton truck or a vehicle with breaching or entry apparatus attached); 6) command and control vehicles; 7) specialized firearms and ammunition under .50 caliber (this excludes firearms and ammunition, such as service issued handguns, rifles and shotguns); 8) explosives and pyrotechnics (includes “flash bangs”); 9) breaching apparatus, such as battering rams or similar entry devices; 10) riot batons (this excludes service issued telescopic or fixed  length straight batons); 11) riot helmets; and 12) riot shields.

An article on Police One.com recommends that you plan early if you want to use federal funds to obtain any controlled items. They stated, “Depending on your organizations’ current policies and the funding source you are requesting, it could be more than a year from the time of the application to the time your agency receives the funding.” Obviously, actually putting the equipment in service will take even longer than that.

Commercial Purpose-built Vehicles

If you don’t want the wait and the red tape caused by EO 13688 or waiting for a possible reversal by the incoming administration, there are other vehicle options available to you. Following, we’ll take a look at commercial vehicles purpose-built for SWAT and customizable to your specific needs.

The BearCat® (and its larger sibling, the BEAR®), built by Lenco Industries, Inc. (www.lencoarmor.com), is easily the most popular among North American LE agencies and has been for several years. Since 1981, Lenco has produced 5000 armored vehicles for use in more than 40 countries worldwide by military and law enforcement.

The BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) was first built in 2001 with input from the LA County Sheriff’s Department and is now used by over 30 American agencies. Depending on accessories, it weighs 16,500 to 17,550 pounds and costs range from $188,800 to $300,000. Primarily a four-wheel vehicle, it is built on a Ford F- 550 Super Duty® Chassis with two engine options (the V10 Triton gasoline or the 6.7L Turbo Diesel) and has a six-speed automatic. It has a .5 inch steel armored body and .50 caliber rated ballistic glass. With a crew of two, it can carry another ten passengers. All this and it is capable of running 75 to 100 mph. There are currently nine versions of the BearCat available, including Military, LE, Medevac, and EOD (bomb disposal).

The BearCat equipment and options list reads like RoboCop’s Christmas wish list. It includes emergency lights/siren, a rotating roof hatch, an optional power turret, gun ports, electric winches, a battering ram attachment, a tear gas deployment nozzle, and night vision optics. It can be equipped with a MARS (Mobile Adjustable Ramp System) which allows tactical officers to gain entry to elevated platforms, such as second story windows.

The latest BearCat option is the new water nozzle. Mounted on the roof and controlled by a joystick inside the vehicle, it is connected to a pumper truck. This means that a fire can be attacked from an armored and protected position, minimizing the risk to first responders. This apparatus could be used in situations such as barricaded shooters who set fire to their structure; to prevent fires started by chemical agents and “flash bang” devices; and in case of firefighter ambush. Obviously, using the water nozzle as a nonlethal weapon in riot control can’t be overlooked, either.

The Armored Group, LLC (www.armoredcars.com) has two different styled armored vehicles available for your consideration – the BATT and the Protector. The BATT (Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport) began life as a new and innovative armored personnel/rescue vehicle. It is based on a Ford F-550 4X4 chassis and is available with either gas or diesel engines. The BATT offers .50 caliber resistance and features a curved body design to maximize available space for up to 12 fully geared officers. The BATT features a blast mitigating floor and internal armored firewall. Other innovations include expanded seating, under seat storage, fully insulated side walls and roof, and a large HVAC system for temperature control.

A large list of optional equipment is available for the BATT, including a battering ram, gas injection upgrade, spotlights, thermal and night vision cameras, and a complete off-road system.

Late in 2016, The Armored Group introduced the Protector, the first in a new line of discreet armored vehicles. The Protector line of vehicles offer rifle round rated protection, a blast/ricochet rated floor and run flat tires – all in a vehicle which doesn’t draw attention. In other words, these do not resemble military or police assault vehicles – they look like ordinary delivery vehicles seen every day on highways and city streets. The Protector package is available on the Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, Nissan NV, and Chevrolet/GMC vans.

INKAS® Armored Vehicle Manufacturing (https://inkasarmored.com) builds the Huron APC. It debuted in 2014 and is larger than the BearCat and BATT. Somewhat resembling the WWII “Deuce and a Quarter” truck, it is a multipurpose tactical vehicle which is able to protect its occupants in high threat environments and in almost any weather conditions. Capable of carrying 16 passengers, the vehicle is characterized by a high level of maneuverability and is lightweight relative to its size. Off-road capabilities are supported by an 8.3L Cummins diesel engine and a ten-speed manual Allison transmission. The OEM body was replaced with a fully redesigned body by INKAS which incorporates heat and noise insulation materials which provide an unprecedented level of comfort to its occupants.

Huron’s perimeter armoring of the passenger compartment and engine bay provide protection against 7.62 SC ammo, 7.62 X 51 NATO ammo and is rated at Level III ballistic standards. The floor is fitted with blast protection from and antipersonnel mines. The Huron can be modified to customers’ needs with such options as a roof mounted gun turret. The Huron ranges in price from $485,000 to $630,000 and is currently in use in Colombia.

SWAT type units will surely become more prevalent in the United States as the threat of terrorist attacks increases. These brave officers must be provided safe transportation and the need for rescue vehicles for civilians and law enforcement alike is paramount. With the current difficulty in obtaining surplus military equipment, we are fortunate that private industry has stepped up to the challenge and is ready to protect and serve us.

Sergeant James Post appreciates your comments and suggestions for future articles. He may be reached at kopkars@arkansas.net.