This week, the Santa Barbara Police Department got the go-ahead to begin using its latest acquisition: an armored vehicle. The Special Purpose Vehicle, a 2010 Lenco Bearcat weighing in at 18,000 pounds and valued at just over $240,000, will reportedly boost Santa Barbara SWAT and CRNT (Crisis Negotiating Response Team) in their efforts to respond quickly and safely to high-risk scenarios.
After a two-year process of applying for what Police Chief Cam Sanchez called a “highly competitive” grant from Homeland Security, Santa Barbara has received the state-of-the-art vehicle on the basis that it will help officers get close to dangerous situations involving hostages and armed suspects without the use of unnecessary violence. Many question Santa Barbara’s need for such a militaristic contraption, but the vehicle is intended as a preventative measure above all else. As Sanchez puts it, the Bearcat is the most important “life-saving tool” that “hopefully we’ll never use.”
Despite Santa Barbara’s status as a safe community, recent incidents—the 2006 Goleta post office shooting and 2008 freeway overpass gunman among them—have solidified Sanchez’s confidence in the need for improved resources. The new vehicle has the advantage of allowing police to approach incidents at close range, to negotiate with suspects and avoid officer-involved shootings, and rescue victims who may previously have been inaccessible.
Similar vehicles are already being utilized down the coast in Orange County, and though the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department has an armored vehicle, it requires the use of a special license. The police’s new rig, modeled after a Ford F-550 Super Heavy Truck and immune to most non-military munitions and explosives, can be driven by anyone with a regular license—and Sanchez plans to share it. He intends to allow any police department within driving distance to use the resource, because “they would do the same for us.”
Placed among surrounding vehicles on the streets of downtown Santa Barbara, the Lenco Bearcat sticks out like a sore thumb; however, that is its purpose exactly. Sanchez assures that the “ominous” vehicle is not here to establish an image of militaristic force in the community, but instead serves as a reminder that the city is protected—and a warning to potential criminals that the police are serious. Though he hopes that opportunities to employ the vehicle remain few and far between, Sanchez wants the department to be equipped with the best tools possible. “Preventative medicine is always the best medicine. If it happens, we’ll be ready.”