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Local law enforcement: We need armored vehicles

Local law enforcement agencies applying for armored vehicles from the Pentagon cited high-profile visitors to Mayo Clinic, Rochester's expected population growth and the Prairie Island nuclear plant in their requests.

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The Goodhue County Board of Commissioners voted to fund the purchase of a retired military Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, like this one owned by theOlmsted County Sheriff's Department.
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Local law enforcement agencies applying for armored vehicles from the Pentagon cited high-profile visitors to Mayo Clinic, Rochester's expected population growth and the Prairie Island nuclear plant in their requests.

Mother Jones recently made public more than 450 law enforcement agencies' applications for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs. Those documents show that in 2013 the Austin Police Department, Olmsted County Sheriff's Office and Goodhue County Sheriff's Office all applied for an armored vehicle.

In its application, the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office noted that "Rochester/Olmsted County is home to the Mayo Clinic which routinely hosts Foreign Heads of State and VIPs." It also mentioned the potential population growth expected to accompany Destination Medical Center — a $6 billion initiative to transform Rochester into a global destination for health care.

The county's application proved to be successful, with the sheriff's office receiving an armored vehicle in 2013. Capt. Scott Behrns, of the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office, filled out the Pentagon application and said having so many VIPs and foreign heads of state visiting the city every year is a security concern.

"We get more VIPs here than people realize, I think. And a lot of it is very low key and handled well, but when they are here it does pose a security threat and we certainly don't want anything to happen to a visiting VIP, a foreign head of state while they are here visiting the clinic," he said.

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Behrns said the MRAP isn't routinely used for these visits but is available in case something goes wrong and individuals need to be rescued quickly from a dangerous situation.

Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson said it's difficult to estimate just how many foreign dignitaries local authorities help protect because it can vary dramatically from year to year. Generally, the police department teams up with the Secret Service or the State Department to provide security.

"It's not used as a standard measure, but if things do go horribly awry, there are resources you can rely on. Fortunately, we haven't had to make that decision. All of the visits we've had have gone well," Peterson said.

The use of armored vehicles and other military equipment has come under increased scrutiny since last year's police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the violence that followed in Ferguson, Mo.

Billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been given to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

A seven-member police oversight commission was recently established in Rochester to review police policies and practices, and that commission could address the issue of military equipment. Commission Chairman Allan Witz could not be reached for comment for this article.

A way to prevent violence?

Local law enforcement agencies that have received armored vehicles say they have helped prevent possible violence. Behrns said Olmsted County's MRAP was sent to Fillmore County last year after a potentially armed suspect with explosives barricaded himself in a bus on a remote farmyard. After the armored vehicle arrived, authorities were able to arrest the man peacefully.

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"(The suspect) did make a statement to the effect that because we had the big vehicle, he knew were weren't leaving and he decided to give up," Behrns said.

Fears about the safety of officers prompted the Austin Police Department to apply for an MRAP, according to Austin Police Detective Todd Clennon. The idea to try to get the military vehicle came after a woman was shot in rural Mower County. Police were faced with the tough task of trying to apprehend armed men on the property, which had a long driveway surrounded by an open field.

"Ultimately, my guys used great skill and decision making and jumped in the back of a 4-wheel drive pickup truck and bounced their way through a mile of a corn field with their weapons and gear," Clennon said.

The police managed to get behind a farm building and arrest the men safely. But the incident got Clennon thinking and he decided to look into getting an armed vehicle for these types of high-risk arrest situations. They applied in 2013, citing that the police department and Mower County Sheriff's Office have a joint Special Incident Response Team. They received an armored vehicle in 2013.

Goodhue County rejects armed vehicle grant

Goodhue County Sheriff's Office applied for a grant in 2013 for an armored vehicle, noting that the department is responsible for responding to threats against Prairie Island nuclear plant. The department's initial request was unsuccessful. They applied again last year and late last month, the department learned it had received a grant for a $325,000 armored vehicle.

But before the department can get the vehicle, the county board has to sign off on an $81,000 local match. Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin said last year that the board voted unanimously in favor of the department applying for the grant and planned to set the money aside for the local match. But on Thursday, the Goodhue County Board of Commissioners voted 3 to 2 against accepting the grant. Opponents cited concerns about the local cost. It is possible that the board may reconsider the issue at its Tuesday meeting.

The county has a 32-year-old armored vehicle, but McNurlin said its "woefully outdated." The new vehicle would have a pressurized interior, making it an ideal rescue vehicle in the case of a potential nuclear disaster or oil train derailment.

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"If there ever was an unfortunate incident at the power plant and a release was imminent or could occur, we can use the vehicle to actually evacuate people because it has the self-contained unit," he said.

Goodhue County Commissioner Brad Anderson voted in favor of getting the armored vehicle and said he hopes fellow commissioners will change their minds and back the proposal.

Anderson added, "They should have said no last year if they seriously didn't want to do it. Times haven't changed."

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Scott Behrns.

Related Topics: POLICE
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