DECATUR — The first time many civilians saw armored vehicles deployed by police officers was when news broadcasts showed them rolling onto streets in the Boston area after the April terrorist bombing.
Coincidentally, the Decatur Police Department obtained a BearCat armored vehicle, the most popular model used by police nationwide, from its manufacturer in Massachusetts a few days prior to that attack.
Lt. Douglas Taylor, then commander of the department’s Emergency Response Team, and Sgt. Brian Bell drove the $220,000 vehicle from Pittsfield, Mass., to Decatur.
Taylor, a former Marine who served 27 years on the Decatur Police Department before retiring in May, said he enjoyed the trip from the East Coast in the brand-new vehicle. Every time they stopped for fuel, the charcoal-colored vehicle attracted a lot of attention.
“Everyone stared at you,” Taylor said. “People snapped pictures.”
Decatur police plan to use the vehicle in various situations, including hostage negotiations, service of warrants involving dangerous suspects and scenarios involving barricaded suspects.
The BearCat, a heavily fortified vehicle designed to carry 10 officers, is built from the cab and chassis of a Ford F-550 commercial-grade pickup truck. The engine, transmission and dashboard are all original Ford equipment. Other elements have been custom-built, including gun ports and a turret equipped with a revolving shield.
During the response team’s first training session with the BearCat, team members affixed the breaching tool stored on the driver’s side to its front end to rehearse breaking down a suspect’s door or fence.
Bell said that was the same tool used by officers in Watertown, Mass., shortly before apprehending the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.
“They put the attachment on the BearCat and tore the canopy off the boat so they could look into it,” Bell said. “The vehicle has 19,000 pounds of pushing power. It will go through barbed wire, a brick wall, anything you want.”
Taylor said the vehicle will not be used on a routine basis.
“For us to make an entry with the vehicle, we would have to have an urgent need to do so,” said Taylor, an original member of the Emergency Response Team, which was formed in 1988. “The BearCat is mainly for the protection of the citizens and the officers.”
Police officials have been trying to obtain an armored vehicle for a decade or so, before an anonymous donor recently made the purchase.
“There is a need for an armored vehicle,” Taylor said. “A lot of towns our size have one. Champaign has one. Springfield has one.”
At the first training session with the BearCat, held on Decatur’s northeast edge, Emergency Response Team members rehearsed the kind of scenarios in which they expect to deploy the BearCat.
In one scenario, an injured Emergency Response Team officer was placed in a field lying on the ground, about 100 yards from a building occupied by an armed suspect.
This is the kind of “officer down” situation in which officers in the past would have had to risk their necks by approaching in an ordinary van. By contrast, the BearCat can withstand gunfire from weapons up to and including .50-caliber machine guns, according to the manufacturer. The thick glass panes in the windshield weigh a total of 700 pounds.
The BearCat was driven to a spot between the building and the injured officer, just a few feet away from where he was lying. As officers inside the vehicle trained their guns on the building, two other Emergency Response Team members jumped out and rapidly dragged the injured man to safety inside the vehicle. The BearCat then quickly drove away to ostensibly take the victim to a hospital.
Taylor said the armored vehicle will allow officers to respond quickly in any kind of similar situation involving an officer or a civilian. Getting medical help for an injured person in a timely fashion may save his life.
The BearCat, which carries loudspeakers, could also save lives in situations involving hostages and suspects who are resisting arrest. Suspects who otherwise may be difficult to communicate with will now be within reach.
“The negotiator may be inside the vehicle,” Taylor said. “With the protection the BearCat offers, we can get into a situation without having to deploy deadly force. We have a protective layer we didn’t ever have before. That’s the best for everybody.”
Taylor said police Chief Todd Walker, his predecessor as the Emergency Response Team commander, has been leading the effort to bring an armored vehicle to Decatur.
“When I was deputy chief, I started exploring various funding avenues, such as grants and foundations,” said Walker, also an original member of the team. “It did not come together. We never could identify a funding mechanism. The city budget wouldn’t cover it.”
Walker, who served as Emergency Response Team commander from 2002 to 2010, said he recently submitted a proposal to the anonymous donor, who supported the idea and provided the funding.
The Emergency Response Team’s first commander was Rich Ryan. Taylor was the longest-serving member of the team, the last of the original members to remain on the team. When operating at full strength, the team comprises 22 officers.
Team members, who are selected from officers with a minimum of two years on the force, are expected to be on call 24 hours every day. While all officers are expected to remain physically fit and meet firearms shooting requirements, Emergency Response Team members must meet higher standards.
“The people who want to be on the team are motivated to stay physically fit and shoot on their own,” Taylor said.
Detective Lt. Cody Moore, who has been serving as interim commander since Taylor’s retirement, has been appointed to serve as commander, effective July 1.
Walker, also an original team member, said not every officer is cut out to serve on the Emergency Response Team.
“When you’re called in, there is a high probability of violence,” Walker said. “Most of the offenders you’re dealing with are armed. It takes a special breed to do that.”