The region's new armored "Bearcat" vehicle has arrived — and it's hard to miss.
The large, fortified vehicle, complete with a gun turret and bullet-resistant windows, arrived earlier this month after Cowlitz County purchased it with federal Homeland Security dollars.
It will be used by SWAT teams throughout the region to handle potentially deadly situations. In what officials call a fluke, though, the Lenco Bearcat 4 already has been used to pull over a suspected drunk driver.
Cowlitz County Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig was training in the vehicle when a call came out about a suspected drunk driver involved in a hit and run. Rosenzweig was the only officer in the area and spotted what looked like the suspect vehicle. So he turned on the Bearcat's lights and sirens and pulled the vehicle over.
It turned out not to be the truck officers were looking for, but the driver's and passenger's eyes certainly got big when they saw what he'd pulled them over in, Rosenzweig said with a chuckle Wednesday.
Officials don't expect any similar calls because the Bearcat won't be used for regular patrols. It will be deployed when Lower Columbia SWAT officers respond to dangerous situations. It will be licensed and titled to Cowlitz County but will serve as a regional vehicle, available to law enforcement in Cowlitz, Clark, Wahkiakum and Skamania counties. It will be based here.
The Bearcat is larger than a Hum-vee armored vehicle — it weighs about 20,000 pounds — and can carry about 12 officers comfortably, more in a pinch. Gun ports with closed hatches line the sides to allow officers to fire without putting themselves at risk. The gun turret includes a shield between officers and any potential threat. However, officials don't want to discuss many of the vehicle's features for security reasons.
Officials said the $244,000 vehicle is designed to increase safety for both officers and residents.
"The whole thing is about keeping officers safe," said Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson. "This gives us something to approach a dangerous, volatile situation in that's more than just a patrol car."
"We can get closer and be safer," added Rosenzweig who travelled with Deputy Brad Bauman to Boston to be trained on the Bearcat. "And it should let us handle situations more quickly, which increases everyone's safety."
Wahkiakum County Sheriff Jon Dearmore said he's thrilled to have the vehicle as a resource.
"It's a huge benefit to us," Dearmore said. The vehicle would have been invaluable during a recent call of a man barricaded in his rural home with several weapons. Officers were able to talk the man into surrendering, but given the terrain and other nearby homes the armored vehicle would have been ideal to approach the house, he said.
Nelson and Dearmore said they'd both like to never have to use the Bearcat, but they know that's not realistic.
"We're in wicked times, and you want top-notch tools," Dearmore said.