SCARY CAT! Lifting the hood on law enforcement’s favorite toy for big boys

Shielded from Justice: The High Cost of Living in a Police State
October 21, 2014
FBI Approaching U.S. Mosque Leaders for Questioning
October 24, 2014

Of all the intimidatory artillery unsheathed by cops after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the most enduring background prop was arguably the St. Louis County police department’s BearCat, with its ominous Batmobile-like armor. The BearCat, short for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, is a flagship product of the Massachusetts-based Lenco Industries.

The all-terrain earth crawlers start at prices in the low $200,000 range, and can sell for more than double that with trimmings like contained air and gun turrets. Police in Keene, New Hampshire, also have a BearCat, which they acquired for $286,000, claiming in their application for federal funds that they needed it to control disorderly crowds at the annual Pumpkin Festival. Yet when thousands of rowdy meatheads flipped over a car and set fires after this year’s event Oct. 18, it stayed in the garage, despite the crowd chanting “Bring out the BearCat!” The attention was a long time coming, although a BearCat with a hydraulic battering ram was used last year to approach the house where Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding in a boat. Lenco has been dominating the niche class of mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles for more than five years.

According to Car & Driver magazine, MRAP trucks like BearCats, which were designed to shield troops from roadside explosives in the Middle East, “are increasingly the [military’s] replacement vehicle of choice for up-armored Humvees.” Indeed, Lenco has serviced more than $73 million in federal contracts since 2000. Therefore, as the state defense apparatus helps police departments prep for doomsday, BearCats have become a favorite accessible plaything among cops countrywide.

Long before the BearCat, fleets of beige and green Humvees ruled the wartime landscape, both here and abroad. The ubiquitous soldier transport units were built to satisfy requests by the U.S. armed services for a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, shortened HMMWV. Since its introduction in the mid-1980s, the Indiana-based AM General has produced more than a quarter of a million Humvees in dozens of varieties.

They’ve been dispatched every place America maintains a presence, but have fallen out of favor since around 2005 in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers kept on losing life and limb to improvised explosive devices despite protection being bolstered on approximately 50,000 Humvees. As a result of older units getting passed to law enforcement agencies, the original Humvee still remains a common public spectacle, although production of commercial models has ceased. Only these days there’s most likely a cop behind the wheel. This past January, the city of Colorado Springs scored seven hand-me-down Humvees free of charge from the federal Defense Logistics Agency.

Meanwhile, a lot of small municipalities have gone bigger than traditional Humvees. Over the past five years, locales like Somerset County in New Jersey and Concord, New Hampshire have acquired MRAP vehicles, with the BearCat leading the pack. Whereas Lenco’s initial Bear model edged out the unsophisticated SWAT-team vans of the past with capacities “for evacuations of 30 or more individuals,” according to company materials, baby BearCats fit about 10 cops and start in the $250,000 range. Custom kits are available for specialized tasks such as SWAT raids, bomb response, and riot suppression. For help in securing a BearCat, there’s a dedicated section on the Lenco website that provides “grant help” for applicants. In St. Louis, police got their buggy thanks to a $360,000 handout from the Department of Homeland Security. In other cases, munitions have been transferred to departments through the 1033 program, which often only asks that buyers pay for shipping, like Columbia House for assault rifles.

Kade Crockford, director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology for Liberty Project, points to the glut of tax dollars spent on MRAPs. “Part of the problem is that since the money to buy these toys often comes from the federal government, there’s not enough local process around accepting funds,” she says. “Most communities that have them don’t even know until there’s some incident and there’s a tank in the street. There needs to be a democratic process every time [authorities] want to use federal grant money. Police departments should have to make the case for why they need them.”

In June 2011, St. Louis hosted the annual National Sheriff’s Association conference, where the Lenco booth and its menacing new G3 blazon proved a major attraction. By the end of the following year, the St. Louis County police had acquired their own custom BearCat, decked with an elaborate steel ladder system built for lifting cops into the department’s jet-turbine helicopter. Before the Ferguson protests made national news, they used it for drug busts. The next time Americans get the kind of fireworks that raged in Ferguson, there will probably be some new attractions.

For every Terminator, there’s a T2 built bigger and badder than its predecessor. In response to a U.S. government request for special MRAP vehicles equipped to truck through rugged mountains in the Middle East, the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corporation (no relation to the baby-clothing manufacturer) has produced more than $1 billion worth of its unprecedentedly agile M-ATV models. The Oshkosh MRAP, equipped with Caterpillar engines and weighing roughly 25,000 pounds, has a base price that exceeds $400,000, with room to spend more than $1 million on extra features. Upping the ante even more is a Texas company called Supreme Specialty Vehicles, which has a new offering that clocks highway speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and features a “height-adjustable turret platform.” “Every time [police] departments get something like a BearCat,” says Crockford, “they talk about the more reasonable [explanations], like they need it because someone barricaded themselves in a house. But then you have Ferguson, where all of a sudden [a BearCat] was rolled out in the street so that cops dressed like they’re about to raid Osama bin Laden’s house can fire tear gas at protesters.”