Given the increased number of violent incidents local law enforcement has responded to over the last few years (with seven officer-involved shootings in the last 14 years, and none in the two decades prior), a need began to become clear to the Harvey County Emergency Response Team and Sheriff Chad Gay — the need for an armored rescue vehicle.
Identifying that need, efforts were made to secure such an asset starting last fall, with the Harvey County Commission approving the purchase of a Lenco BearCat in December 2018 at a cost of $295,418, with both the Friends of the ERT and sheriff's office (through forfeiture funds) pledging $50,000 each over the next five years to help with payment for the vehicle.
Now the goal of the sheriff and ERT has been met, as the BearCat officially arrived in Harvey County last week — driven all the way from the manufacturer in Massachusetts by members of the ERT.
On that drive back, made by assistant team leader Nate Regier and ERT commander Brandon Huntley, the usage was discussed and it was noted the BearCat could and would have been used on any of the calls the team responded to in the past year. Given that, both were sure the vehicle would prove its worth rather quickly.
"I don't foresee any situation where the team gets activated and this is not a part of that response," Regier said. "Just the ability of having a piece of armor that will stop bullets is invaluable."
Before the purchase of the BearCat, the ERT used a converted ambulance as its main tactical vehicle. Both Regier and Huntley noted that will still be used on calls — of which the ERT handles between six and 12 on an annual basis — as an equipment transport, while the BearCat will be used for personnel transport and offer a number of tactical advantages over the ambulance.
Along with the ability to to be fully armored (to the ground, through deployable drop-down shields) on one side and featuring a hatch that offers multiple positioning options for different scenarios, additional features requested as add-ons included an attachable battering ram (to break through barricades) and a gas injector that could be a less lethal approach to de-escalate certain situations.
Like Huntley and Regier, Gay pointed to a number of situations where the BearCat could have been deployed in previous years — with a recent standoff in rural Hesston coming to mind. With a shooter isolated in the house of a gun owner, the threat level was uncertain and Gay noted the only truly safe way to approach that situation would be to have an armored vehicle drive up to the house. Previously, an ERT member would need to lead a team forward with a shield to engage the suspect in that scenario.
Having the BearCat gives the ERT a more protected — and quicker — way to engage suspects, with it being viewed as a tool to rescue people in danger and protect first responders in critical, life-threatening scenarios. While Reno County's BearCat responded to the scenario in question, having such an asset more readily available is something both Gay and the local ERT members see as a major advantage.
"It gives us an option if somebody is shooting at us to be able to get close to them, to be able to react to them, to be able to save people who are put in harm's way. That's not just the cops; we're talking about the public, if we have to rescue somebody from a house," Gay said. "Having this thing to me is huge. It is a big deal for us, as law enforcement, and it should be a big deal for our citizens to know that we have this thing to come out and assist people. We are calling it a rescue vehicle for a reason because that's what it does. For us, it bumps our capabilities up a ton."
"This is a game changer. Some people see this roll up and it's game over for them," Huntley said, "they're like 'yep, I'll come out now.' People understand that it's serious business now, and so a lot of people will just come out on their own then."
Other than the Hesston standoff, Gay also pointed to the triple homicide on Spencer Road as an instance where the BearCat could've been deployed, while Regier brought up a scenario elsewhere in the country where a similar resource was used on a domestic violence call where a husband shot at his wife, the wife escaped to the front yard and was then rescued by an armored vehicle and taken to the hospital for treatment before the vehicle returned to the scene to address the threat of the husband.
Not only can the vehicle be used in active shooter scenarios, but Huntley also pointed out the capabilities the BearCat has to be deployed for high water rescues (something the county has had to deal with recently), given the size of the vehicle — pointing again to such instances where similar resources have been used, including a highway rescue in Texas.
While the BearCat is an ERT resource, Gay wanted it to be clear that it will be available to help departments across the county — and even perhaps in neighboring counties, like McPherson, Marion or Butler. Additionally, it helps the Harvey County ERT meet the capabilities it has to in order to continue receiving federal funding. More than that, though, the BearCat brings an added level of safety and security to Harvey County.
"The potential for this thing to save lives (is) off the charts," Gay said.
"Our obvious goal, regardless of whether it's on the street or on the team, is life-saving no matter what," Regier said. "Having this piece of equipment that its main goal also is life-saving, it increases our abilities tenfold from where we have been before."