BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office recently obtained an armored vehicle from a federal military surplus program — but it hopes to never have to use it.
During several nights of protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson — sparked by the shooting death of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer on Aug. 9 — officers were seen carrying assault weapons and in armored vehicles.
The military equipment was obtained through a Department of Defense program that dates back nearly 20 years. The Defense Excess Property Program, also referred to as 1033, sends surplus to local police departments for cheap. Use of the equipment in Ferguson has raised concerns about the apparent militarization of local police.
Calhoun County Director of Emergency Management Durk Dunham told 24 Hour News 8 the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office needed a new vehicle for emergency communication and coordination. It was using an old ambulance that had been painted black and had more than 300,000 miles on it.
“It was old we are pouring money into it and financially we didn’t have any other choice. We had to just keep it on the road,” said Dunham.
He said the department couldn’t afford anything new until it received a military surplus vehicle for less than the cost of a new car.
The armored vehicle came to Battle Creek by way of Texas. Its whereabouts before that are classified.
Dunham said he understands that people may be a bit put off by its appearance.
“It can be very intimidating on that first visual,” said Dunham. “My strong advice and inclination for folks watching it — don’t judge a book by its cover.”
The vehicle is seven years old and gets three miles a gallon. 24 Hour News 8 was told it will be used for communications and coordination in a disaster, like the severe storms that devastated the county in 2011.
“There were areas that we physically could not have gotten into with a normal four-wheel driver truck that we could have gotten into with this vehicle,” said Dunham. “It would have made the difference, at least for some folks, for food, water, clothing and those things. You try not to look back and say, ‘what if,’ because we didn’t have the vehicle — but that’s something I do think about.”
Dunham said that the vehicle will not be used for SWAT or tactical teams. He said that’s not what they got it for and it wouldn’t be the best vehicle for that purpose.
“There are other vehicles that are much more practical to first response. They’re going to be much smaller, and they’re going to really maybe be geared more towards that first responder coming out,” said Dunham. “This was never meant as a first responder vehicle. You will not see lights on this — flashing lights or sirens or anything like that. You will not see this going speeding down the highway. This is a secondary response vehicle that we acquired specifically for communications and command for any disaster or any emergency scene for that matter.”
Dunham said he anticipated using the vehicle two or three times a year. He said the department hopes to have it for years to come as long as no major repairs are needed.