The county’s $228,000 armored SWAT truck, mostly paid for with federal dollars, was among the projects questioned in a recent analysis of U.S. Department of Homeland Security expenditures.
The armored truck, which is kept at the Somervell County Law Enforcement Center, was cited as one of the items that “raise questions about how the investments address terrorism concerns,” according to a yearlong examination of homeland security spending based on data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
The Texas Tribune, an online publication, analyzed the database and published its findings last week. Other homeland security projects it raised questions about included a $188,000 video screen bought – but not used so far – by the city of Corpus Christi to watch hurricane footage from surveillance cameras, and a $441 portable toilet for West Texas firefighters and law enforcement officials to use when they’re in remote areas fighting fires.
“In Texas, much of the money has been spent to improve local emergency response and beef up police and fire departments, items that once were considered local responsibilities but now seem to fit the bill of homeland security,” the Tribune report said. “Local governments defended their expenditures as critical safety measures that their taxpayers could never afford without federal assistance.”
The county applied for and received money from the Department of Homeland Security to assist in protecting the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant as part of a “buffer zone protection plan” for key infrastructure. Area law enforcement agencies also use the bullet proof vehicle to respond to calls in which shots are fired.
The truck, called the BearCat, is made by Lenco, a Pittsfield, Mass., manufacturer that specializes in armored vehicles for law enforcement, the military, government agencies and private security forces.
The Los Angeles and New York police departments are customers, as are police and sheriff departments across the nation. The U.S. military and private security details also use the vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Somervell County has received more than $340,000 in homeland security grants from 2003 to 2008, according to the analysis. The Department of Homeland Security spent $179,550 on the truck, while the sheriff’s department kicked in $49,000 from its “forfeiture fund,” meaning money confiscated from drug seizures. The county received the vehicle in late 2006.
Derrell McCravey, Somervell County’s chief deputy sheriff, said the need for the truck came out of discussions with federal, state and local authorities on emergency responses to potential acts of terrorism against the plant. They decided that having the truck close by, rather than having to bring in one from several hours away, would save time and possibly lives.
“We talked to folks at the plant and everyone was in agreement that we needed an armored vehicle stationed here,” McCravey said. “All of this is about preparedness and availability.
“This is here and available and we don’t have to wait for two hours,” he added. “Even two minutes is too long when somebody is shooting at you.”
The department uses the truck in regular training exercises at Comanche Peak. It’s equipped with “everything you need to be first responders” to an attack, McCravey said.
The BearCat is Lenco’s law enforcement model. It’s designed as a “counter attack truck,” built on a Ford commercial truck chassis with military-specification armor plates ?certified to defeat multi-hit attacks,” as Lenco described it. The ceiling and floors provide “enhanced blast and fragmentation protection” from such threats as roadside bombs. The metal armor can withstand blasts from 50-caliber bullets.
In testimonials on Lenco’s Web site, law enforcement authorities have credited the truck with helping to end gunfights and standoffs with armed suspects.
Somervell County has made the surrounding counties of Bosque, Erath, Hood and Johnson counties aware of the truck. It’s available to them to use it when needed.
For example, the truck was taken to Hood County last year when officers there responded to a call about a man who had barricaded himself in a mobile home and had been shooting guns several times.
The tactical unit arrived and officers made contact with the suspect through a public address system. An armed officer was positioned in the BearCat’s open turret.
“The guy looked at us and surrendered,” McCravy said.
Somervell County officers also drove the truck when responding to a call earlier this year about a woman who, during a phone conversation with a credit card collector, had threatened to commit suicide. The sheriff’s department recognized the address from and knew the occupants to be somewhat “anti-government.”
“It was tough thinking about going out there because sometimes when people threaten to take their own lives they end up in a shoot-out,” McCravey said.
The residents turned out not to be at home.
“The truck is a tool,” McCravey said as he drove a visitor around to demonstrate the vehicle. “It’s an amazing piece of machinery. Whenver we have a high-risk situation, we are going to use it.”