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Deputies say new armored car will save lives

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County Sheriff's Department Capt. Sean Crosier has been shot at before. It's not an experience he cares to repeat.

"Two of the last six times I've been shot at, I was able to hear the bullets whizzing by my head," Crosier said from behind the bulletproof windshield of the department's new BearCat armored car.

Crosier, and other local law enforcement officers, hope the new vehicle will help protect them and the public during dangerous encounters like Monday's police standoff with Mark Bramble, an attorney who allegedly fired dozens and dozens of shots both inside and out the windows of his home in the Sherwood Forest subdivision in Charleston.

"It's worth more than its weight in gold," Crosier said Tuesday, while taking the 8-ton armored vehicle on a test run.

Twenty years ago, the sheriff's department SWAT team was rarely called on, said Kanawha County Sheriff Johnny Rutherford. Now, it's a regular occurrence.

"There's no doubt it's becoming more and more common for police to come under fire," the sheriff said.

"We've had [the BearCat] a month, and we've already used it three times," he said. "Two of those involved heavily armed men."

Rutherford and Crosier see the armored car's main role as providing a safe and secure way for officers to approach dangerous crime scenes. "It's not a weapon," Crosier said. "It's designed to keep us safe and help us rescue those who are in danger and not safe."

Rutherford was more succinct.

"It will save lives," he said.

Rutherford said the $286,000 vehicle was paid for with money already in the sheriff's department budget. One of only two such vehicles in the entire state, he said the armored car will be made available to any agency in the area who needs it.

The vehicle has space for 10 officers and their equipment, and will stop just about any kind of ordnance someone would try to shoot at it. Bulletproof glass, thick steel armor and special tires help protect the officers inside.

Crosier said the BearCat allowed deputies to drive up right to Bramble's doorstep on Monday, to shuttle police and equipment back and forth during a three-hour standoff. "We sat there comfortably, knowing there was nothing in that house that could hurt us," Crosier said.

Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said having the vehicle available on Monday allowed police to safely get in close to the house. "For those kinds of operations it's a very valuable piece of equipment," he said.

The armored car, built on a Ford F-550 Super Duty truck chassis, has a surprisingly smooth ride.

"It's like a Cadillac," Crosier said. he said the diesel-powered BearCat will cruise at 70 mph on the Interstate and doesn't use as much fuel as one might think.

The vehicle is equipped with regular and infared cameras, has weapons ports in the doors and sides to allow officers to safely shoot from inside and has a battering ram that can be deployed to knock down doors if necessary. The battering ram can also be used to deploy tear gas.

Deputies aren't very keen on criticism that the sheriff's department has no need of an armored car. They point out that a regular police cruiser doesn't do a very good job of stopping bullets.

"We're open to suggestions, if anyone has a better idea," said sheriff's department spokesman Cpl. Brian Humphries.

"You want to loan us your Prius?" he said. "You can drive."

Crosier insists the need for the vehicle is real.

"West Virginians are notorious for having high-powered hunting rifles and high-powered handguns," he said. "They've shown on numerous occasions they have no problem using them on police. Our [patrol] cars won't stand up to that."

The sheriff's department has another armored car of sorts, a relatively weakly armored military base security vehicle built in the 1970s that the county got through the state surplus system. But the vehicle is old, underpowered and hard to drive. It's also uncomfortable.

"It's a mobile oven," Crosier said.

Although they don't plan on using the BearCat as a weapon, the vehicle clearly has its offensive uses. If, for example, officers need to get inside somewhere in a hurry, they could go through a wall if they have to.

"You've got the battering ram in front, you've got the weight, you've got four-wheel-drive and you've got ground clearance," Rutherford said. "You can pretty much go anywhere."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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