NEW PORT RICHEY — As late as 1996, Pasco SWAT team members' primary defense in potentially violent standoffs was an unarmored bread truck. Over the years they also used a moving trailer.
But that changed with the recent purchase of a $249,000 Lenco BearCat. The bulletproof vehicle, which weighs about 20,000 pounds and resembles a tank, was paid for with money forfeited by drug dealers.
"This is perfect to take back neighborhoods," Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference Wednesday to unveil the BearCat. SWAT members in full gear posed in front of it as television cameras shot footage.
Sheriff's officials said they obtained the vehicle because Pasco has grown increasingly urbanized and dangerous. The vehicle will allow SWAT team members to get as close as possible to standoffs or buildings where high risk search warrants are being carried out.
"Pasco County isn't a sleepy little town anymore," said Nocco, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year when Bob White retired, and who is running for the office in 2012. "Gone are the days we can say 'That couldn't happen in Pasco County.' "
In addition to serving as a mobile fort, the BearCat can also be a hospital on wheels. Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point will provide a trauma surgeon to accompany the SWAT team.
The BearCat has been in service about a month and already has been used in several situations. The most recent involved a suicidal man in Odessa who locked himself in a shed. But the most important tool that night in diffusing the situation wasn't the BearCat.
It turned out to be Facebook — and a resourceful sheriff's deputy who used it to communicate with the man.
But officials point out that the BearCat will keep team members safe as they go into dangerous situations.
"This will allow them to go right into the hot zone," Nocco said.