Spokane County will spend $390,700 on a new BearCat armored vehicle for the sheriff’s office to use in a variety of volatile situations.
The Spokane County Commissioners approved the purchase, without any discussion, at their Feb. 1 meeting.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the region’s long history of extremists is a huge reason the agency began purchasing armored vehicles in 2000. Those were Vietnam-era armored personnel carriers, Knezovich said.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office currently owns two military surplus armored vehicles, an MRAP and a smaller Tactical Response Vehicle. They also co-own a BearCat with the Spokane Police Department, but the vehicle, now nearly 15 years old, has had a slew of mechanical issues in recent years.
The new purchase comes as state legislators, members of Congress, and activists have sought to demilitarize local law enforcement agencies. The push gained steam last legislative session in the aftermath of protests against police brutality sparked in part by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Local groups, including Spokane Community Against Racism, have advocated for demilitarization as well.
“Military uniforms, vehicles, and weaponry communicate to the residents of Spokane that the police view them as enemy combatants,” the organization’s platform for change reads. “Furthermore, militarized uniforms encourage a ‘warrior’ mindset in police, which emphasizes readiness for violent conflict over the relationship-based work of building community trust.”
The armored vehicles allow law enforcement agencies’ SWAT teams to drive up to incidents like shootings, Knezovich said. They can also be used to evacuate bystanders, he said.
“We want to be able to save our children should one of our schools have an active shooter, that is not necessarily a kid,” Knezovich said. “We want to have the ability to rescue members of a church that somebody might decide to go and shoot up or a business.”
Those types of situations are not uncommon, Knezovich said, noting an active shooter situation took place earlier this week at a Fred Meyer in Richland.
While the armored vehicles are useful in extreme situations, they’re most commonly used by the SWAT team when suspects barricade themselves in a building, Knezovich said. The current fleet of armored vehicles is called out about 40 times per year, he said.
In those situations, two armored vehicles are usually needed, one in front of the building and one in back, Knezovich said.
“That armored vehicle gives us the ability to deescalate a scene,” Knezovich said. “We can safely put people in an area ready to respond if we should have to, but if we don’t have to we can sit and negotiate with that individual from a secure platform.”
Sometimes there aren’t enough vehicles to go around, Knezovich said.
If the Spokane Police Department is already on a call using their own BearCat and the shared BearCat, then the sheriff’s office has to call surrounding agencies to use their armored vehicles in addition to the MRAP, he said.
“What happens if they take our armor away?” Knezovich said. “We have to have the capability to keep this community safe.”
Reforms passed last year by the Legislature limited how officers can launch tear gas and when it’s appropriate. The new law banned most military-grade grenades, smoke grenades and some large-gage weapons used to launch the gas cannisters.
Knezovich said the new armored vehicle will allow deputies to use gas with a bionic arm.
“This BearCat has the ability to have an arm on it, which can penetrate a wall and deliver gas in it rather than having a deputy have to go into a very unsecured area,” Knezovich said. “So it was done as part of the response to the legislature taking away our abilities to keep this community safe.”
The BearCat G3 is made by Lenco Armored Vehicles in Massachusetts. The vehicle seats 10 to 12 fully equipped officers.
It features significant mechanical improvements from the current BearCat shared with Spokane police, wrote Undersheriff Mike Kittilstved, in response to questions from the Spokesman-Review. Kittilstved is the Special Operations Group Commander and oversees the SWAT and hostage negotiator units.
The new vehicle will allow deputies to treat anyone with a traumatic injury inside the vehicle, and includes IV hooks and better lighting, Kittilstved said.
It also has better camera capabilities and an intercom system. While the Spokane Police Department’s BearCat is equipped for urban areas, the Sheriff’s Office new vehicle will be equipped for rural areas.
The vehicle has four-wheel drive and off-road tires, along with increased ground clearance and stronger suspension, which are an asset in the rural areas of the county, Knezovich said.
The estimated delivery time for the BearCat is 10 months, but with disruptions to the supply chain, Knezovich said, it’s unclear when the new vehicle will arrive.