ST. PETERSBURG — Officer David Gerardo still remembers the chaos he faced when he arrived at the home of an armed fugitive who was hiding in an attic and shooting at police officers in February 2011.
As a member of the department's SWAT team, Gerardo was one of the first on scene.
In those first few minutes, officers struggled to find cover as they traded gunfire with Hydra Lacy Jr., who shot and killed two of their comrades, K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Tom Baitinger.
St. Petersburg police did not have an armored truck so SWAT team members had to crouch behind a commandeered dump truck until armored vehicles from other Tampa Bay area agencies arrived.
"I can tell you it was too long," Gerardo said. "In a bad situation, minutes matter."
Since that day, the department has worked to upgrade the tactical equipment available to officers. Over the past several months, officers have gotten better shields, vests and weapons.
On Tuesday, the department unveiled its newest tool: a 19,500-pound armored rescue truck called the BearCat.
"This is the final piece of the puzzle," police spokesman Mike Puetz said. "This is one of those purchases you hope you never have to deploy. But as we learned last year, these are the realities we face."
The city lost three police officers to gunfire in 2011. A month after Yaslowitz and Baitinger were killed, a teenage prowler shot and killed Officer David S. Crawford.
The department paid for the $225,000 BearCat with drug seizure funds, Puetz said.
"Previously we didn't have a tool that enabled us to get into an area with hostile gunfire," Gerardo said.
Earlier this summer, Gerardo and two other officers travelled to Massachusetts, where the truck was manufactured, to learn its specifications. The truck, based on a shortened Ford F-550 chassis, has a smooth ride despite its size. It can go as fast as most standard cars. About a dozen officers can fit inside.
Officials would not discuss all its features, but said it can be used to "push, pull or breach" certain structures.
Over the next several months, Gerardo and Officer Jason Deary will train the rest of the SWAT team and other officers on how to drive and operate the vehicle. It won't be used in every SWAT situation, Puetz said.
Still, officers said it will be a comfort knowing the vehicle will always be close.
"It's certainly a welcome tool to help to effectively address very dangerous situations," Deary said. "This can be used to save lives."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.