ST. PETERSBURG — The ferocious firefight that cost two officers their lives on Jan. 24 was brought to an end by the bravery and firepower of St. Petersburg police — and 25,500 pounds of bulletproof steel.
The gunman was still shooting from the attic when the GPV Sergeant 4x4 armored personnel carrier rolled into the fray. Its battering ram punched through the front of the house to allow a SWAT team to get to a fatally wounded officer trapped inside.
The armored vehicle used that day didn't belong to the city; it was borrowed from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon now wants to spend $250,000 so the department will have its own vehicle for quickly responding to emergencies.
"Bad people have access to guns, and they're going to use them," Harmon said. "The main intent of this vehicle is to rescue officers or community members under attack."
Armored vehicles are a reality for American law enforcement. The Tampa Police Department, the sheriff's offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas and the local FBI office all have them. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is joining that list. With the City Council's approval, so will St. Petersburg.
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The armored vehicle would be the centerpiece of the chief's $500,000 request to re-equip the police force after three officers were fatally shot this year.
New bulletproof vest options, mounted gun lights and lighter tactical shields also are being proposed. Mayor Bill Foster supports the equipment, which would be paid for from the department's $1 million forfeiture fund.
"It's not taxpayer dollars," Harmon said. "The criminals are paying for this one."
In the aftermath of the Jan. 24 shooting, the chief said he didn't think the city needed its own armored vehicle, as agencies routinely share resources.
But that thinking changed after a tactical review Harmon convened in June. The sheriff's vehicles are stationed in the north and central parts of the county — but not the south. They were not as readily available as St. Petersburg believed.
It took about 20 minutes for the sheriff's armored vehicle to get to the Jan. 24 standoff after it was called in.
"A 15- to 20-minute response time may not seem like a lot," Harmon said. "But if you're pinned down by gunfire, that's an awful long time.
"The bottom line is I can have this vehicle dispatched immediately and have it arrive anywhere in St. Pete in a matter of minutes.
"For other agencies to do that is not practical."
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Armored vehicles, most of them military surplus, have been used in Tampa Bay since the 1990s.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office bought two 8,500-pound Peacekeepers in 1997 and rebuilt the 1970s-era armored vehicles for police work.
The Tampa Police Department has two 24,000-pound military surplus vehicles: the V150, an amphibious vehicle it purchased in 1998; and the M577, a tracked armored personnel carrier it obtained in 2003.
"They give us the ability to get closer to the scene," said Tampa police Capt. Brian Dugan, "and we need to protect our officers when we respond."
Pinellas added the GPV in 2006. It cost $323,000. The added advantage of the GPV and Tampa's V150 is that they also can help rescue residents from flooded or damaged areas during extreme weather.
Harmon wants to purchase a modern vehicle already built for police work, not to mention the added benefit of a warranty. One model St. Petersburg is considering is the popular BearCat, a 16,000-pound truck built by Lenco Armored Vehicles.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office bought one in 2010 for $245,000. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is waiting for one — paid for with federal forfeiture funds — to arrive next month.
Harmon said his "officer rescue vehicle" would be used in all high-risk situations.
If officers or civilians were pinned down by a sniper, the armored vehicle would be called in to shield them from gunfire and rescue them.
It would also be used against a barricaded gunman, or to help the SWAT team serve a search warrant at a well-armed drug house. It wouldn't have a battering ram like the sheriff's GPV.
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David Rittgers, a legal policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute and a former special forces officer, doesn't doubt the need for such vehicles.
But there is a danger when civilian police agencies use military equipment, he said.
He's worried that police departments that routinely use military gear could start to adapt a military mind-set, using aggressive weapons and tactics that aren't always appropriate.
"When police behave like soldiers," Rittgers said, "then we've gone off the rails."
Not every search warrant requires an armored vehicle to help, he said. But now that so many police agencies have this kind of equipment, he said they're using them regularly.
He cited a May incident in Arizona. A SWAT team serving a search warrant fired more than 70 rounds at an Iraq war veteran, killing him as his wife and 4-year-old son hid in a closet, according to news reports.
The veteran was a suspect in a drug case and was raising an AR-15 rifle at the officers when he was shot, authorities said. The officers were all cleared. They used an armored vehicle to approach the house.
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Police tactics have long been debated in St. Petersburg.
Are officers being too aggressive or not aggressive enough? It's a quandary Harmon has spent much of his career managing.
But the chief believes that the loss of three officers — in a city that hadn't lost any for 30 years — has changed the community's opinions about acceptable tactics and equipment.
"Given the facts of this year," Harmon said, "I haven't heard anyone tell me it's the wrong thing to do."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.