NEWTON — 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 past 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 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 men noted the BearCat could have been used on any of the calls the team responded to in the past year.
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.
"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."
Huntley also pointed out the capabilities the BearCat has to be deployed for high water rescues.
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.
"The potential for this thing to save lives (is) off the charts," Gay said.