Jim Weiss and Mickey Davis
Dateline 2017: Two heavily armed suspects in a high-intensity drug trafficking area barricaded themselves in a car. Cleveland (Ohio) Division of Police uniform patrol officers called for a SWAT assist.
SWAT responded in their Dragoon Patroller, an Armored Rescue Vehicle (ARV), nicknamed “Mother II.” Cuyahoga County (OH) Sheriff’s Office SWAT also responded in their Lenco BearCat® ARV. Both law enforcement vehicles, Mother II and the sheriff’s BearCat, sandwiched the suspects’ car in between them. Even with that, the two armed suspects managed to shoot one of the SWAT officers in his lower leg; however, both suspects were seriously wounded in the subsequent exchange of fire.
Prior to Cleveland obtaining their armored SWAT vehicle, Mother II, they operated Mother I, a custom-built ARV. At first, there was political opposition to both the formation of a SWAT unit and its utilization of an ARV. At present, citizens have seen the Cleveland police SWAT team with their ARV for such a long period of time, they think nothing of it.
SWAT still owns, and continuously operates, Mother II which has been going strong for 21 years after it was bought in 1997 to replace Mother I (which was of 1970 vintage).
Four Types of ARVs
1) Commercial Conversions – for example, a Brink’s armored transport vehicle which is out of service and retrofitted for SWAT use;
2) Custom-built – made-to-order armored vehicles, such as Cleveland’s Mother mentioned earlier;
3) Military Surplus – examples include Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles; M113 armored personnel carriers (tracked) and variants; Peacekeepers I and II which are four-wheeled, lightly armored vehicles; and armored Humvees; and
4) Developed for Law Enforcement – vehicles such as Lenco Armored Vehicles’ BearCat and the larger BEAR®; the Dragoon Patroller (there are still a few of these currently in police service; Armet’s Guardsman, Gurkha and the Balkan; the tracked Tactical Response Armored Car (T.R.A.C.); Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport (BATT); General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada RG12 (not many in U.S. service); TAC-CAT (tracked); the International Armored Group’s Sentinel; the GPV Sergeant 4×4 ARV (out of production – not many in U.S. police service); Oshkosh’s Light Tactical Vehicle; and the tracked Rook.
Of these, Lenco’s BearCat and Bear have pretty much dominated the law enforcement ARV market, although the BATT and the MRAP have also gained a following.
The number one (ballistics-related) question concerning all armored rescue vehicles is, “What will it stop?” Most new ARVs are rated to stop Level III threats with some rated to stop Level IV. For example, the Cleveland Division of Police’s ARV, Mother II, has a double skin of armor and is rated to stop .50 cal. ball ammunition.
Older and retrofitted ARVs need to have a representative ballistic panel test fired to determine its ballistic capabilities. Bad guys often shoot at the windows and windshields (especially the driver’s window), so these need to be composed of ballistic glass.
ARVs are high maintenance vehicles which require upkeep, as well as occasional repairs. New ARVs are mechanically sound; however, one which is 20 or 30 years old may not be in good running condition unless it had been maintained on a regular basis.
For example, during a barricade incident in Cleveland, one of the older ARV’s engine experienced catastrophic failure. Fortunately, it happened right next to a construction site. One member of the SWAT crew got a quick lesson in the operation of a front-end loader and pushed the ARV – with another officer partner steering it – more than a mile to the barricade scene.
This was in 1981 when an off-duty police officer (last name Baker), who was plagued with psychological issues, shot two security guards, then went home to his apartment. Once there, he fired through his door at responding supervisory police officers. Afterwards, he fired over 100 rounds at other responding officers; police were ordered not to return fire. When Mother was pushed to the scene, Baker fired 53 rounds at the ARV rather than at the police.
Borrowed Armored Vehicles and the Historical Needs for ARVs
In Austin, Texas, in 1966, sniper Charles Whitman killed 14 and wounded 32 people from the observation deck of the Clock Tower at the University of Texas. Austin Police Department commandeered a “money escort” armored transport vehicle to pick up the wounded and transport them to waiting ambulances.
During the Glenville, Ohio, shootout and riots in 1968, officially, three police officers and one civilian helping the police were killed, and one police officer died a few years later of wounds received. A total of 12 to 15 people were wounded and three militants were killed. There weren’t any police ARVs in Ohio at that time, so Cleveland police used borrowed Brinks armored trucks to remove the dead and wounded and to patrol the area. Later, the police department received a custom-built ARV, the first and only police ARV in Ohio for some time.
One of the best-known incidents of law enforcement utilizing borrowed armored vehicles during an emergency was the North Hollywood shootout which occurred on February 28, 1997. After a bank robbery went bad, two heavily armed individuals, wearing body armor, confronted officers of the LAPD. The subsequent gun battle resulted in the injury of 12 police officers and eight civilians, with over 2000 rounds fired during the 44 minute encounter. At one point, officers of the LAPD successfully commandeered an armored bank vehicle, in order to safely rescue downed officers and civilians while under fire.
Since the majority of police and sheriff’s offices still do not have ARVs to supplement their responding forces, it is recommended that arrangements be made ahead of time in case the need arises to borrow one. For example, the Knox County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office does not have an ARV in their fleet. When one is needed, they request an adjoining county to assist. One such situation involved a barricaded suspect known to have firearms in his possession. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office used the neighboring county’s ARV as cover to get close enough to the residence to deploy a throw phone through a window.
The disadvantage to borrowing or requesting assistance from another agency is the delay involved as the request goes up the ranks for approval.
ARV Use in Real-life Situations
Minkler, California – Minkler is a sparsely populated, rural town in Fresno County, California – a place where “nothing ever happens.” However, something nefarious did happen in February of 2010 when a search warrant attempt turned into an active shooter situation which killed one Fresno County Sheriff’s Office deputy and badly wounded another.
In this incident, SWAT’s two ARVs were utilized for the following objectives: 1) ballistic protection for community members and peace officers; 2) blocking barriers between suspect and victims; 3) a platform for chemical agent deployment; 4) a platform for cover fire; 5) reconnaissance for intelligence gathering and site orientation; 6) rescue of community members and peace officers; 7) surveillance devices deployment; 8) transportation of community members and peace officers; and 9) verbal communications to obtain suspect(s) surrender.
Pinellas County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office – After the St. Petersburg Riot of 1996, which included gunfire, flames and smoke, the Pinellas County Sheriff determined that acquiring one or more armored vehicles for the sheriff’s office use would meet a couple of needs: an armored vehicle option to be available to rescue downed deputies, officers and citizens; and protection for the SWAT team.
Due to budgetary restrictions, purchasing a new armored vehicle was out of the question. As a result, surplus Air Force Peacekeepers were obtained instead. When the two rusty, nonoperational armored vehicles arrived in Florida, they were in skeletonized, vintage scrapyard shape with various engine components tossed inside one of the vehicles. Many folks doubted the ability of the sheriff’s office fleet mechanics to transform them into fully functioning ARVs.
The Peacekeepers are based off the Dodge 3500 chassis; therefore, the vehicle maintenance section was able to supply parts, including those no longer manufactured.
An early Peacekeeper callout included aiding another Gulf Coast county in 1998 when a wanted felon, Hank Earl Carr, murdered two Tampa Police Department detectives and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, and then took a service station clerk hostage. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office was the only nearby agency with armored vehicles at the time, so one Peacekeeper was driven to the hostage scene and the other transported on a flatbed to it. After a long standoff, he released the hostage and committed suicide.
As the fleet added other ARVs, the Sheriff’s Office kept the two Peacekeepers, along with other specialty vehicles, and positioned them strategically throughout the county for rapid deployment.
In 2006, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office purchased a new GPV Sergeant 4×4 ARV. This vehicle seats ten in the rear interior compartment, as well as two deputies up front. It came equipped with a Hazmat air purification system; gun ports large enough to be used with optics or other sighting or lighting systems; a partial half armored shield turret which can rotate and, if needed, allows for a long gun to be set up in it; a winch; and a ram. A majority of parts for the GPV Sergeant are available through various vendors since this ARV is based off a Ford F-750 chassis.
In one incident involving the St. Petersburg Police Department, two law enforcement officers were struck by gunfire inside a residence as they attempted to serve an arrest warrant. The department did have a SWAT unit, but did not possess an ARV (the St. Petersburg Police Department now has a BearCat). The Sheriff’s GPV Sergeant ARV was called to rescue the injured officers. Its battering ram demolished a portion of the front of the perp’s house, allowing the SWAT team to enter and resolve the incident. Currently, the Sheriff’s Department has two MRAPs which are leased through National Defense Authorization Act 1033 Program, both built by Navistar Defense. Support for replacement parts for law enforcement agencies is provided through Navistar Defense’s regional distributors.
The sheriff’s ARVs are readily available for any high-risk situation a supervisor or shift commander deems necessary. For example, these MRAPs were deployed with a small response crew to two high-priority incidents during the height of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
All law enforcement deputies are trained on the safe operation of the ARVs which gives the supervisor a large cadre of ARV operators in the event a large portion of manpower is tasked out on perimeter positions or directly involved in an incident.
Houston, Texas, Police Department – In Houston, Texas, a crazed gunman opened fire from inside his residence, pinning police officers down. Houston SWAT’s Dragoon Patroller, Variant 1 (a police version equipped with a ram), made its first high mobility appearance. An officer trapped behind a tree signaled to the ARV crew as the bad guy’s gunfire knocked tree bark down on him. When the ARV drove up and shined its lights into the house, the bad guy hunkered down, afraid that it would crash into his home. The situation was resolved and the officer was rescued.
Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office – This agency has a Lenco BearCat and a 6×6 MRAP. Their 6×6 MRAP has a Caterpillar diesel engine, an Allison transmission and was built in 2000 by BAE Industries for an original cost of $412,000. Like all MRAPs, it is leased from the federal government through the National Defense Authorization Act 1033 Program, at a cost of $2,000 per year.
One notable mission their SWAT team responded to involved a barricaded subject who had violently killed an elderly woman and a small child. The BearCat’s ram was used to tear off a garage wall where the suspect was hiding. The suspect exited the garage unarmed and charged at deputies, possibly trying to provoke a suicide by cop reaction. He didn’t notice the ram arm which was at about head height and ran into it, knocking himself out.
In another mission, a suspect who had threatened his girlfriend with a rifle was barricaded in his residence. The BearCat’s ram was used to breach the front door and windows, after which an operator was able to deploy a remotely controlled robot from the safety of the BearCat’s turret. The robot cleared the entire residence with the exception of the room where the suspect was hiding. Operators were able to enter the home and later arrest the suspect who was hiding under a bed.
The BearCat is assigned to SWAT and only used when SWAT is called out. Their MRAP is assigned to the Special Vehicle Unit and can be used for any situation where it is needed. For example, it has been used during hurricanes and floods to assess damage and to assist anyone needing to be evacuated. The ground clearance of the MRAP is very advantageous when operating in high flood water.
Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has a detailed tactical response plan which governs the use of the ARVs in high-risk situations. There is no policy which specifically covers the vehicles; instead, the vehicles are governed by the policy of the unit they are assisting or assigned to. For example, the BearCat is deployed in accordance with SWAT operating procedures.
Jim Weiss is a retired Book Park, Ohio, Police Department lieutenant.
Mickey Davis is an award winning author and a senior volunteer member of a California fire department.