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View All Articles | September 5, 2014

Orlando police shopping for new armored vehicle

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While some law enforcement agencies are snatching up free military surplus vehicles, Orlando police plan to spend $230,000 for a new armored personnel carrier for the department’s SWAT unit.

It’s not the Orlando Police Department’s first armored vehicle — it already has three. But the new one will replace an 8-year-old model, and the city’s original one is an older piece of military surplus that hasn’t been used in years.

The new Lenco BearCat® is the same model used by police in Ferguson, Mo., that sparked concerns about the increasing militarization of local law enforcement agencies across the United States. But Orlando Chief John Mina said the SWAT vehicle is meant to safeguard officers — not put down civilian uprisings.

“It’s not a tank with a weapon mounted on it,” Mina said. “It’s simply to transport officers and protect them from being shot.”

The BearCat is already the Orlando SWAT team’s go-to vehicle for responding to a barricaded gunman or serving a search warrant on a violent suspect. If the $230,000 purchase is approved by the City Council on Monday, the department will get its second BearCat.

The vehicle, manufactured in Pittsfield, Mass., would be fully clad in ballistic armor able to withstand high-powered .50-caliber rounds, multiple shots from M-16- and AK-47-style assault rifles, and even .30-06 armor-piercing bullets.

It comes standard with half-inch steel armor, 2 1/2-inch thick windows, protective roof turret, 11 gun ports, chemical-resistant paint, as well as an AM/FM radio with CD player, cup holders and floor mats.

City records show Orlando police have added options including a battering ram attachment.

Many local law enforcement agencies have armored vehicles, including Winter Park, Kissimmee, and Leesburg police departments and most sheriff’s offices. But some, such as the Maitland and St. Cloud police departments, have taken advantage of a U.S. Department of Defense program that transfers surplus gear to law enforcement agencies for free or practically nothing.

St. Cloud Chief Pete Gauntlett said his department paid only a $2,000 transfer fee for a military Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle with about 11,000 miles on the odometer. The department used prison labor to outfit the vehicle so it could transport the SWAT team.

MRAPs were designed to protect military personnel from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with the drawdown of American personnel there, the Pentagon is unloading them. They cost an estimated $1 million each to manufacture.

“If we ever have a critical incident like Sandy Hook or Columbine, it will be ready,” Gauntlett said.

Maitland hasn’t used its MRAP yet because it’s waiting for a new paint job to replace the standard desert tan.

“We’ve had it for a while but it’s never been put in service,” Lt. Louis Grindle said.

Orlando’s Chief Mina, though, does not trust military surplus. An armored personnel carrier the department acquired from the military in the late 1990s — dubbed the “Peacekeeper” — requires substantial maintenance and hasn’t been used in years.

“I think it was a poor decision because it was so old,” said Mina, a former SWAT commander.

The new vehicle will replace an Armet F550 Tactical Transporter that Orlando bought in 2006 for $92,000. Mina said he’s sensitive to the perception of military-style equipment. But armored vehicles can be used during hostage negotiations, or to rescue officers or civilians pinned down by gunfire.

“It does look militaristic but it’s designed for law enforcement,” Mina said. “We don’t use these vehicles for riots or any type of crowd control.”

By Mark Schlueb
Orlando Sentinel