HUNTERSVILLE – “Please put the gun down!”
Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill watches online the recording of a standoff filmed through the windshield of a BearCat, an armored vehicle law enforcement agencies use in rapid deployment situations.
The standoff occurred several years ago in Henderson, Texas.
Suddenly, a loud “ping” is heard and the windshield cracks. Then another “ping” and another crack. Then a long series of “pings” as bullets hit the side of the BearCat and the officers put the vehicle in gear to move quickly around to the backside of the shooter’s house.
Spruill switches to an online video of another standoff, this one recorded in Fond du Lac, Wis., several years ago.
Police officers are seen rushing several citizens into the back of a BearCat parked near the home of a shooter firing rounds into the street, closing the doors to the vehicle and then taking off in a hail of gunfire.
The sounds and images are enough to convince Spruill that his force and the citizens of Huntersville need a BearCat.
“The BearCat is like a firearm,” Spruill said. “Rarely is it needed, but when and if the day comes that it is needed, it is a critical, must-have piece of equipment that saves lives.”
Huntersville commissioners approved the fiscal year 2015-16 budget June 1, which includes an $82,000 line item for the purchase of a used BearCat.
The budget was approved in a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Jill Swain called upon to break the 3-3 tie among commissioners.
Commissioners Melinda Bales, Rob Kidwell and Danny Phillips cast the dissenting votes partly on grounds they saw no need for Huntersville to spend its money on a BearCat.
Bales told commissioners at a budget workshop preceding the vote that she preferred Huntersville reaching out to law enforcement agencies in the area with BearCats whenever the need arises.
She then listed the agencies, including the Mecklenburg and Catawba county sheriff’s departments and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Gaston police departments.
“Reaching out to other municipalities is better than buying our own,” she said.
Kidwell wrote in an email following the vote that he agreed with Bales.
“We have several in the region and I believe we have not done our due diligence in promoting a regional solution to benefit Huntersville, North Mecklenburg and the LKN region,” he wrote.
Spruill said in an interview June 8 the nature of crime has changed over the years to the point that more situations require immediate response.
“In the past, the expectation was police would isolate and contain the situation and wait for the specialists to arrive,” he said. “Today, there are certain circumstances where you don’t have that kind of time.”
Should a call be put into the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, for example, Spruill said it could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour before its special emergency response team is gathered, loaded into its BearCat and headed to Huntersville.
“If we go into a hot situation, we need something to protect the officers,” he said. “If someone is down and bleeding out, I can’t wait. Saving lives is measured in seconds and minutes, not hours. We should have this capability.”
Major T.M. Plummer, commander of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office emergency response team, reaffirmed Spruill’s concern in an email June 6.
“MCSO does not have a full-time tactical team,” Plummer wrote. “Therefore, the response times may vary depending upon resource availability. When responding to a tactical situation, the optimum scenario is to have needed equipment immediately available and ready for deployment. MCSO would not be interested in ‘loaning’ tactical equipment, but will make our resources available upon request. However, MCSO resources must be under the supervision and control of MCSO staff whom have been specifically trained to operate the equipment.”
Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle echoed Spruill’s concerns in an email June 4.
“Chief Spruill has found a problem that needs fixing,” Hoyle wrote. “The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has always been willing to assist and provide resources to our agencies, but a regional asset takes time to reposition, time you may not have in a very dangerous situation.”
Bales also presented to commissioners a list of the mere handful of times armored vehicles have been called into play in the region during the past 10 years.
Phillips shared his thoughts in this regard in a phone call the day after the vote.
“I’ve lived in Huntersville all my life,” he said. “How many times have we needed that in Huntersville? We don’t need stuff like that.”
In June 2006, local press reported a standoff between Huntersville police and an unidentified armed man who had barricaded himself in a van off of Old Statesville Road. SWAT officers were called to the scene. The man died during the 23-hour standoff.
“That kind of case demonstrates the reality of the world we live in,” Spruill said. “We have the same things happening here as anywhere else.”
Spruill mentioned the massacres at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.
In both cases, armed students entered the schools and started shooting fellow students and faculty at random.
A total of 44 people were killed and 38 people were injured in the surprise attacks.
“Some people say this couldn’t happen in Huntersville,” Spruill said. “If you went to Columbine or Blacksburg the day before, what would they have been saying?”
Bales told commissioners she preferred the money for the BearCat listed in the budget be reserved for body cameras and other protective equipment.
She’d also like to see federal grant money, rather than Huntersville taxpayer money, pay for a BearCat purchase at a later date.
Spruill said his department had researched a federal grant last year, but could not get a statement of financial need from the town to meet grant requirements.
Spruill also addressed recent concerns nationwide about local police forces taking on equipment that makes them look more like military forces than public servants.
“Every police department should be concerned about how they’re perceived,” he said. “We’re not a military operation occupying Huntersville. This is not a military vehicle. It’s basically a Humvee on steroids with armored plating. This is designed for police.”
Spruill said officers have shared information on the BearCat with participants in the department’s 10-week Citizens Police Academy.
“We want the community to know more about us,” he said.
As Spruill collects the additional funds needed to buy a used BearCat, the force will make do with the only armored vehicle it has in its fleet.
Brinks security donated a 1991 model truck to the department in 2006.
The paneled vehicle, which has more than 460,000 miles on it, is showing signs of rust and broken seals on the windows.
Capt. Scott Sharp, who’s in charge of Huntersville Police Department field services and the department’s SWAT command, said one local law enforcement agency contacted the department the last time their officers spotted the Brinks truck on the scene of a rapid deployment situation.
“Don’t use it again, they said,” according to Sharp. “Call us and we’ll help you.”
For Spruill, the bottom line on asking town commissioners to help buy a used BearCat is about saving lives.
“Our officers and citizens deserve this kind of protection,” he said. “Isn’t your life worth $82,000?”
What is a BearCat? The BearCat is an armored response and rescue vehicle built to protect individuals in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives incidents. The BearCat protects the police special response team and allows them to approach potentially deadly situations under the cover of a mobile bunker. The BearCat has been used to rescue wounded personnel and to evacuate citizens from life-threatening situations.
BearCat by the numbers
Length: 20 feet
Width: 8 feet
Height: 8 feet
Weight: 9 tons
Special Features: running boards, gunports, 360-degree rotating roof hatch
Cost (new): $200,000-$275,000
Expected Life Cycle: 20 years
– Lenco Armored Vehicles