The events in Ferguson, Mo., have put the spotlight on the militarization of police departments, and the debate is fierce over just how far departments should go in their use of equpment designed for a war zone.
But sometimes, upgrades are way overdue. Exhibit A: the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office.
Last Friday, the RCSO became the proud new owner of a BearCat, a $287,000 armored vehicle purchased with budget savings and intended to replace the SWAT team’s old ride.
That vehicle? A 1989 Dodge van.
Yes, until now, the SWAT team had to respond to emergencies in the same vehicle teenage boys once used as a place to put the moves on teenage girls or to fire up a doobie after school. I couldn’t help but wonder if this van had an air-brushed painting of a naked lady on the side of it or maybe a panoramic scene of the desert at night, complete with a crescent moon that doubled as a window. But then I saw a picture of the van. And read the description.
The not-quite-sky-and-not-quite-powder blue van with white wheels (no hubcaps) and tinted windows more represented an old church bus than a rolling high school hangout. The 25-year-old vehicle was worn out and obviously not appropriate for a SWAT team, a fact of which the sheriff’s office was aware, as evident in this sentence from the story in the Rockdale Citizen:
“This van does not represent a 21st century law enforcement agency, like the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, and more importantly, it does not represent the caliber of our SWAT team,” said RCSO Chief Deputy Scott Freeman, pointing out the deficiencies in the old van, including, but not limited to, a sliding door that does not always work and front seats that are not secured to the floor.
I read that and immediately began envisioning the ride to some crisis, a bank robbery or a hostage standoff. I saw the old blue van, full of SWAT members clad in body armor and helmets, assault rifles at the ready, as it trucked down the highway, officers bouncing and swaying like riders on a roller coaster:
Officer Johnson: C’mon, Sarge! Is this as fast as this thing will go?
Sarge, driving: Doing the best I can fellas. You know how the back tire wobbles over 50. You want the back window falling out again?
Officer Rodriguez: Is the air conditioner still broken? It’s awful hot back here, and Jones forgot to shower again.
Jones: Me? What about Smith? And plus, he keeps touching me. (To Smith: Stay on your side!)
Sarge, looking back in rear-view: You better settle down back there! Do NOT make me pull this van over.
The van hits a bump, and then Sarge grabs the dash to keep his unbolted seat from falling over. Finally, they arrive at the scene. Officers champ at the bit to pour out and take on the bad guys:
Smith: Hurry up, Rodriguez! The bad guys are going to get away!
Rodgriguez: I’m trying! The door is stuck again.
Jones: Did you jiggle it? Sometimes, if you jiggle it-
Sarge: (sigh) Out through the front, guys! And mind the seats!
But those days are over. Now Rockdale SWAT can roll up in its BearCat, ready for anything.
Jokes aside, let’s hope they don’t have to use it too often. Being a member of SWAT is an awfully dangerous job that few can do. The fewer calls the officers have to answer, the better the odds of them returning home at night. But if they do roll out, at least now it’ll be in a vehicle fit for the job.
And one final thing: I really hope they have a sense of humor. I’d hate to see that thing in my rear-view mirror the next time I’m riding down I-20.
Email Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.