A standoff stalwart

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2011 - 7:03 PM

Washington County will deploy the new BearCat, a $237,000 armored vehicle that will be used in the most dangerous situations officers face.

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Sheriff Bill Hutton, shown inside the bullet-resistant Bearcat, where teams of deputies can approach a tense crime scene in safety. The vehicle can seat as many as 10 special response officers.

Photo: Kevin Giles, Star Tribune

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In the dark, officers hunkered down in bushes as bullets whizzed above their heads. A suicidal St. Paul Park man was holed up in his family home, shooting round after round.

It was the sort of potentially lethal encounter that officers can face in an era of high-powered weapons and terrorist threats.

Now, Washington County has an armored truck to not only protect officers, but citizens, too, Sheriff Bill Hutton said last week while sitting in the 9-ton vehicle.

Using $237,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Hutton's office bought the SWAT truck, called a BearCat, replete with bullet-resistant windows, gun ports, hatch, a battering ram on the front bumper, tear-gas dispenser and public address system.

This is the fifth such vehicle -- either BearCat or its larger brother, the B.E.A.R. -- to be purchased in Minnesota, said Lenny Light of Lenco Armored Vehicles in Pittsfield, Mass.

Washington County law enforcers tried for years to land one of the highly competitive Homeland Security grants,

In the St. Paul Park standoff last August, Nathan Kluessendorf stopped shooting, but deputies couldn't tell where he was -- and if it was safe to enter his house.

Cmdr. Brian Mueller, who heads Washington County's special-response team, said officers used Dakota County's BearCat to drive up to the house, break through a window with a camera on a pole, and view Kluessendorf on the floor, where he lay shot in the midsection. They stormed in.

That saved Kluessendorf's life, Mueller and Hutton said.

A few days ago, Chief Deputy Dan Starry drove the BearCat to the Law Enforcement Center in Stillwater, where Hutton and deputies got their first look at it.

They didn't hide their excitement.

Cmdr. Cheri Dexter said deputies on active calls have waited up to 45 minutes for a special response team to arrive with an armored vehicle from another jurisdiction.

Now, she and Starry said, Washington County will be able to respond more quickly when deputies are under fire and civilians are endangered.

The BearCat and the special-response team will be available to law agencies throughout the region, including St. Croix County, which doesn't have a BearCat, Hutton said.

Homeland Security also awarded $226,000 for a mobile command post to replace Washington County's rusty trailer next week.

And soon, a 3-foot-tall robot will arrive, thanks to a $70,000 federal grant. It can be sent into tight places and dangerous situations and be used to talk with suspects, to deliver phones and in other ways.

From its rotating hatch to its remote-controlled spotlight and front-mounted battering ram, Starry said, the BearCat has features that will enable deputies to close in during tense situations.

"People are realizing that this truly is a piece of life-saving equipment," said Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, whose department bought a BearCat in 2008.

The Dakota County tactical team rolls with its BearCat 18 to 22 times a year, including incidents in other counties, Bellows said.

In May 2010, for example, Dakota deputies drove it to Ramsey County after Maplewood Sgt. Joe Bergeron was ambushed and killed. Two suspects were on the loose. One was arrested and the other fatally shot after attacking another officer.

"We're in the business of saving lives," Bellows said, adding that the cost is justified if a community looks not only at the monetary loss of losing an officer or civilian, but the emotional costs as well.

In Tyler, Texas, a BearCat recently enabled officers to approach a home safely as a gunman shot at them with a high-powered rifle.

And in Teller County, Colo., deputies used a BearCat after a man allegedly told a negotiator that he wanted to commit "suicide by cop." He shot the armored vehicle but was arrested without injury on Oct. 27.

In Maryland, there's another Washington County, where that sheriff's office bought a BearCat in 2006 with a $202,000 Homeland Security grant.

At first, citizens were skeptical, said Lt. Mark Knight, head of that department's special response team.

"We got the same looks and comments as any other jurisdiction: 'Why do you need that?' and 'You paid what for that?' Now, they cheer when we go by," he said.

That BearCat proved its worth after a man killed a Smithsburg, Md., police officer in 2007. When the tactical team caught up with the killer, he blasted their BearCat with a shotgun from seven feet away.

"Our BearCat was shot by the suspect three times with a shotgun," Knight said. "It saved the lives of 12 swat officers in the BearCat that night."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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  • Chief Deputy Dan Starry said the BearCat drives like a car except for braking the 9-ton vehicle to a stop.

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