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BearCat armored vehicles welcomed in many NH towns

Union Leader Correspondent

March 25. 2012 10:51PM
Similar to the armored vehicles used by other police departments and region special operations teams across the state, the LENCO BearCat ordered by the Keene Police Department can transport up to 10 officers into high-risk situations. (Courtesy)

The LENCO BearCat whose purchase has caused a stir in Keene over the last few months joins a cadre of armored police vehicles across the state.

New Hampshire State Police, the Nashua Police Special Reaction Team, the Manchester Police SWAT Team, the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit based in Concord, the Southern New Hampshire Special Operation Unit in Derry and the Seacoast Advanced Response Team in Portsmouth all own armored vehicles.

Manchester Police Sgt. Joe Mucci, who is both a patrol officer and SWAT team leader, recalled an October 2009 incident in which the SWAT Team's BearCat was used to rescue a woman from her front porch, after she had been shot by her estranged husband.

'I can tell you as a team leader on a SWAT team, it's an essential piece of equipment that we can't go without and no SWAT team should go without,' Mucci said.

He said the vehicle's primary use is 'to get tactical officers to and from hostile situations, to recover and protect civilians as well as rescue injured civilians and officers.'

Most of those interviewed said the armored vehicles are used about once a month. Mucci said the Manchester vehicle has been deployed more than 100 times since its purchase in 2007.

Keene City Council's acceptance of a $285,933 Homeland Security grant to purchase a LENCO BearCat Special Missions for the police department late last year riled some residents, who said it would be a waste of federal funds and/or a militarization of the small city's police department.

After several public hearings, Keene councilors voted again to accept the grant. City Manager John MacLean said the vehicle has been ordered, and will take several months to be built.

Nashua: It's invaluable

Nashua police purchased a BearCat with drug forfeiture money in 2003.

'Using the BearCat has just been an invaluable tool to safely accomplish our goals,' said Nashua Police Capt. James Lima, who is in charge of Nashua's Special Reaction Team. 'Even if you only use it once a year, if you are using it in a situation that prevents police officers or civilians from potentially being injured, then once is more than enough.'

Like the vehicle Keene ordered, the BearCat is built to protect up to 10 officers from high-velocity rifle rounds.

'We use it whenever we need to go to any high-risk type of incident,' Lima said. 'That would involve armed individuals or individuals that we believe to be armed and it provides certainly a high level of protection and safety for our officers to get into a position to deal with that situation whatever that might be. It also allows us to evacuate civilians from those same situations - a barricaded gunman, a situation where we believe a hostage is being held.'

Lima said a public announcement system on the vehicle also allows police to bring in a negotiator to communicate with a subject when a cell phone or land-line phone is not an option.

In January 2011, the BearCat was deployed to Pelham on a brutally cold winter day for a barricaded suicidal person.

'It allowed us the opportunity to rotate officers so we weren't stuck out in the elements for extended periods of time,' Lima said.

Positive feedback

Manchester purchased its BearCat in 2007 using a Homeland Security grant, then donated its Peacekeeper, another armored vehicle, to the Central New Hampshire.Special Operations Unit.

Concord Police Sgt. Steve Smagula said before owning the Peacekeeper, officers would have to enter a hostile area using hand shields.

'It was very slow, it was very dangerous cause you can't put shields all around you and, if you had to make a rescue, it was very dangerous and it took a long time,' he said.

Portsmouth Police Detective Michael Maloney said the Seacoast Emergency Response Team purchased its BearCat several years ago through a Homeland Security grant.

'In the years that we've had it and the times that we used it, it's been an absolutely invaluable piece of safety equipment both for civilians and law enforcement who use it,' Maloney said.

The Southern N.H. Special Operations Unit also purchased its BearCat with a Homeland Security grant, said Unit Commander and Derry Police Capt. George Feole.

The BearCat is used 'anytime an officer is deployed into a hazardous environment,' he said.

The armored vehicles are also used in the communities for parades and brought out on National Night Out events as well as Touch-A-Truck events.

'We've had nothing but positive feedback from the community,' Feole said.

Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey, whose town is a member of the Southern N.H. Special Operations Unit, said it makes sense for his town to be part of a regional group that owns a BearCat.

'It's great to have a regional team that reduces the cost of having a vehicle like that,' Hickey said.

A fact of life

Rye Selectman Joseph Mills said the Seacoast Advanced Response Team BearCat is housed in the Rye fire station because of its size. Sometimes when residents see it and think it was a town purchase, they get upset. Once he explains it is a regional vehicle purchased through a grant, they calm down, he said.

He said he doesn't understand the big deal over the Keene BearCat purchase.

'It's a needed thing today with the society we live in. It's a fact of life you have to have that. I don't know why the people in Keene would refuse the funds. I just don't understand their logic,' Mills said. 'You may not use it once. It's there in case you need it.'

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