SALT LAKE CITY — The dramatic ending to the search for two mass shooting suspects in San Bernardino, California — captured by news helicopters overhead — involved several armored police vehicles.
Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, were killed in a furious gun battle with police. During the shootout, the couple fired 76 rounds, while police unleashed about 380, according to police. Officers moved toward the couple using at least two armored BearCat vehicles.
The debate over the militarization of local police departments — including the use of armored vehicles — has become a hot button political issue. It's an issue that local police chiefs and sheriffs have been questioned about for more than a year.
Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson said incidents like the San Bernardino shootings are why his office has an armored BearCat vehicle.
"If we don't have equipment like this, we will be dealing with burying emergency personnel because we're going to be put into a phenomenally dangerous situation with no protection on them," he said Thursday.
Richardson said the armored vehicle is used often, for both training and actual emergencies, and has been used to assist police agencies in Weber and Salt Lake counties in addition to Davis County. In 2013, it was used to bring an end to a standoff on I-15 near Kaysville with a suspected armed bank robber.
More recently, it was used in a Millcreek standoff involving a man who had shot his estranged wife and her friend, leaving them both critically injured.
An emergency situation can happen anytime, anywhere, Richardson said. As for critics who say local police departments should be less militarized, the sheriff has a quick response: "They really don't understand the system and the equipment that's out there to keep our officers safe.
"That's in essence what we're trying to do here, to protect the citizens in this county and the citizens in this region with this piece of equipment, make it so they can go home at the end of the day safely."
The 'militarization' of local police
Even though the BearCat is an armored vehicle, Richardson insists it is not a "military" vehicle.
"So when you want to bring up the militarization of police forces and things like this, it's really people who haven't taken the time to learn the equipment that we use, why we use it, how we use it, and they just want to arbitrarily say that if it's bulletproof, it's military. And it's not," he said. "I know what's going to keep our deputies safe, and that's my No. 1 concern."
But opponents have argued that local police departments are using military-like equipment in situations that don't call for it, and sometimes situations are escalated because of that unnecessary equipment.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, said he has not seen armored vehicles misused in Utah. But there have been situations in other states where BearCats are rammed into a house during low-level drug investigations.
A tool "can be used both ways," Boyack said, adding that there aren't many situations where a BearCat is needed.
Examining the necessity for equipment
"We can't look at San Bernardino and say, 'The sky is falling. We need to give police all of these military tools' and have them use all these military tactics when that doesn't reflect the reality in which we live. It's easy to look at San Bernardino and extrapolate that and say that's going to happen everywhere, but that's simply not the case," he said. "Frankly, what needs to happen is an open, public discussion about whether these things are proper for police agencies to own. And that discussion simply hasn't happened.
"Anything that we can do to protect people is good," he continued. "But that has to be balanced against privacy, against misuse of tools, against accountability for when tools are used improperly."
The Salt Lake City Police Department, one of the largest police agencies in the state, does not have an armored vehicle. But it has received assistance from Davis County when it felt it was needed.
Former Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, who is now director of law enforcement engagement for the Center of Policing Equity, said the issue is not whether departments own that kind of equipment, it's how that equipment is used.
Burbank said a BearCat would be useful for rescuing an injured officer in a shootout situation. But it's not OK to drive a BearCat down a major road for every police call, he said.
Burbank admits the incidents in Salt Lake City where a BearCat would be legitimately needed are rare.
"The notion that everyone needs everything to police their community" is unnecessary, he said. "If we needed one, you could borrow one."
Rather than looking at the "extremes," Burbank said policies and decisions should be made by looking at the typical police calls. Furthermore, he believes the large amount of money spent on some equipment might be better spent on crime prevention efforts.
The Unified Police Department used to have a BearCat. But when the debate about the militarization of police forces got too heated during the last election, the owner who loaned his BearCat to the department decided to take it back.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who oversees the department, would like his officers to have a BearCat vehicle once again. On average, Unified police were using it three to five times a month for critical incidents, he said.
As for the argument from some opponents that local police agencies are misusing armored vehicles, Winder said what needs to be considered is the person behind the wheel and not the vehicle itself.
"People have gotten a head of steam that the mere possession of these things turns cops into egotistical, adrenaline, action-junkie type things. It isn't the vehicle that turns them into that. They're either that or they're not that. We try to hire, we try to train, we try to retain people that are not of that ilk," he said. "The idea that when you put them into these vehicles they suddenly turn into different creatures, that's nonsensical."
Other armored vehicles in Utah
Both Unified police and the Utah Department of Public Safety have armored vehicles known as MRAP, or Mine Resistant Armor Protected. The vehicles are larger than BearCats and are less maneuverable, and they are used primarily for safely transporting police or victims from hostile situations. Both departments say their MRAP vehicles have been used sparingly.
A poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates for UtahPolicy.com in 2014 during the height of the political debate found that 56 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat supported police departments using military equipment. Thirty-one percent said they were strongly or somewhat opposed.
When asked what kind of threat would justify local police departments using military weapons and equipment, there wasn't one answer that had an overwhelming majority of votes, according to the poll. Utahns said riots, terrorists, heavily armed threats and hostage situations would be scenarios where military-type force would be appropriate. Fourteen percent of respondents said there was no justifiable scenario for using military-like force.
Richardson hopes that those who oppose local police agencies owning vehicles like BearCats will change their minds after seeing what happened Wednesday in California.
"I would fully well expect that after looking at the incident in San Bernardino, that this is what this piece of equipment is used for, not coming down and oppressing the normal citizen. It's for those people who have decided to do things that are horrible, and it's for us to have a piece of equipment to stop it," he said.
Contributing: Geoff Liesik
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