America's most in-demand police vehicle is a ten-officer 16,000-pound armored tank that takes bullets like Superman and drives 80 mph. The federal government buys dozens each year for local police departments. Do America's local police need tanks?
Every day, America produces a fresh batch of barricaded gunmen, some of whom want to lure police into a shootout. Roughly 50 police officers are killed every year, most in shootings, and many during arrests or ambushes.
Which is where the Lenco BearCat G3 rolls in.
"If somebody looks out and sees a Ford Crown Victoria sitting out there, they may not take you very seriously," Warren County, Va., Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron told a local newspaper in October, "but if they look out the window and see this thing sitting there, they're going to know you're serious."
The BearCat G3 claims the vast majority of armored personnel carrier sales to SWAT teams in the United States. Fashioned from a Ford F-550 commercial truck chassis, Massachusetts-based Lenco builds about 200 such vehicles in year, in grades from "VIP SUV" to combat-ready with gun turrets. The massive roller is actually a smaller version of the BEAR, or Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle, which Lenco builds for armies and law enforcement agencies around the world.
Anytime there's a public shooting or standoff in an urban area, chances are a BearCat will be on the scene. It has option controls for battering rams, winches and even surviving a chemical weapons attack. With military-grade armor and the ability to take repeated hits from bullets up to .50 caliber, it's most frequently used as a rolling shield.
Last October, a gunman outside of Tyler, Texas, shot and killed his neighbor. When police arrived at his home, he unloaded at least 35 rounds from an AK-47 into a newly bought Lenco BearCat from close range. A police sniper killed the gunman; no one else was injured, and no bullets penetrated the BearCat.
The family-owned company had its start building armored bank trucks, but switched into security in the early '90s, offering an alternative to the surplus military vehicles larger police departments had used. Early purchases by the Los Angeles Police Department, along with the swelling number of the nation's 3,000 local police forces forming their own SWAT teams, gave Lenco a booming opportunity.
The other reason for its popularity? Thanks to the U.S. government, most police departments now get their BearCats free.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Congress and presidents Bush and Obama dramatically boosted Homeland Security spending; the Department of Homeland Security now hands out more than $3 billion a year in grants to boost anti-terrorism tools around the country. The Lenco BearCat — which start around $190,000, and can top $300,000 with options — can easily qualify as a necessary tool under several different grant programs, from disaster response to crime fighting. In just the past year, federal grants bought BearCats for police and sheriff's departments from York County, Penn., to Pasadena, Texas, to Sparks, Nev. Police departments also often use money seized in drug cases for BearCats; under federal law, such cash can't be spent on their everyday costs, such as replacing worn-out cruisers.
But does every police force with a SWAT team need a BearCat? Law enforcement officials have no shortage of cases such as the Tyler shootings to show how a BearCat protected officers where other vehicles might not, although some have suggested the BearCats have become status symbols among smaller agencies.
Other criminal justice experts have questioned whether police need mini-tanks, saying they're often used for mundane tasks like serving warrants, and create a sense of police as military soldiers rather than neighbors. They also contend that BearCats and other SWAT machinery do little to prevent violent crimes, which have fallen steadily for a decade.
"It's all an illusion," said Jim Fisher, a former professor of criminal justice at Edinboro University and author of a book on SWAT teams. "The fact your police dept just bought an armored vehicle does not make you safer. It's going to make you poorer, becuase your taxes will go up to pay for training and maintenance." In light of today's budget-strapped environments, we too wonder whether the federal government should be paying for small counties and towns to have tanks to use against their citizens.
Law enforcers don't see much to those criticisms. Lou Vallejo, the sheriff of Garfield County, Colo., felt compelled to explain the arrival of a BearCat for his department last July, which serves a population of about 75,000, citing two cases where officers were shot on duty.
"In the world of law enforcement, we must also be prepared for the highly unlikely, BUT possible tragic event," Vallejo wrote in an open letter, "and there is NO price tag you can put on the life of a police officer who is out there protecting you."
And how can you argue with that?