GLENWOOD SPRINGS - One of the more controversial aspects of Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario's two terms in office has to have started on the day he bought the vehicle known as the BearCat.
Critics of the sheriff's department and policies regularly focus on the BearCat, calling it everything from a "tank" to an "urban assault vehicle" to a "terrorist-proof ego-wagon," implying with the latter label that it is some sort of toy meant to satisfy the sheriff's supposedly fervid law enforcement fantasies.
But to Undersheriff Colt Cornelius, who said recently, "I get a chuckle when I read those statements," it is simply a tool for keeping his All Hazards Response Team safe.
"There's absolutely nothing on it, or part of that vehicle, that is offensive in nature, like a .50 cal. mounted on the turret, or anything else, missiles or anything like that," he said.
Instead, he continued, when making high-risk visits to drug dens and other dangerous locations, his 15-member AHRT travels to the site in safety.
The team members then can use the vehicle as a tactical tool for everything from intimidating a suspect into surrendering without a fight, to bashing in a door, wall or window to get inside a structure.
The vehicle, which is stored near the Garfield County Airport when not in use, has seen action a total of 10 times since it got here in September 2008 - twice in 2008 and eight times in 2009, according to a compilation of reports delivered to the Post Independent by Cornelius.
Sheriff Lou Vallario declined to release the actual incident reports citing privacy and security concerns.
Nine of the calls were to serve warrants for the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, or TRIDENT, several times in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The one non-TRIDENT incident was earlier this month, when the team was called upon to assist the Avon Police Department and the Eagle County Sheriff's Office in dealing with a man who had barricaded himself in a home and was threatening suicide.
Another incident, also earlier this fall on a date that Cornelius could not recall, involved a report that a man at a house outside Carbondale was firing shots inside his house and threatening to have a "shoot-out" with any law enforcement authorities who showed up.
Cornelius said he called for the BearCat to be brought from its garage near Rifle to the Glenwood Springs jail, but at the same time called on one of his team of a dozen or so negotiators to try to talk the man down.
The negotiator was successful, Cornelius said, so the BearCat was sent back to Rifle, and the incident was not even written up in the standard "after-action reports" that typically catalogue each use of the BearCat.
"He was able to literally talk him back into his house and back to bed," Cornelius said of the work of the negotiator, whom he did not name.
"He literally slept it off," Cornelius said of the subject, adding that on the next day the man was apologetic for the incident when deputies paid him a call.
"I think he did go to jail, I think he was arrested on the charges," said Cornelius. "But that's, from my perspective, how important our negotiators are."
He explained that what might have happened is that, as the BearCat rolled up, the man could have either killed himself or started shooting at the deputies. Instead, he said, the end result was "a very peaceful resolution."
The BearCat, made by the Lenco Armored Vehicles company in Massachusetts, cost about "$235,000 and change," said Cornelius, who took over management of the AHRT when he was hired in 2008. The money came from the sheriff's budget, starting with $150,000 that had been earmarked for a new mobile command center but was diverted to the BearCat after Cornelius and the sheriff decided the BearCat would serve in that function and more. The rest of the price tag was found elsewhere in the sheriff's budget, Cornelius said.
It was while Cornelius was looking into the team's equipment inventory that he concluded that a tactical armored vehicle was worth considering.
"A lot of tactical teams are seeing barricaded persons, active shooters like we saw in Fort Hood and in Vail last weekend," he said on Nov. 13. "Those are the things that really concern me, and I take this job very seriously, my command and everything."
The Vail shooting was inside a bar where a Carbondale man was killed. The AHRT was not called to respond to the incident.
A very secure vehicle
The BearCat is basically a Ford 550 chassis, transmission and engine (a 325-horsepower turbo-diesel) that has had the original body removed and replaced by a shell of reinforced steel.
The BearCat looks like a small version of the HumVee, American Motors' military vehicle, and weighs in at 18,000 pounds. It gets 11 miles per gallon, has "run-flat" tires that will keep the vehicle moving even if they are punctured, and sports a turret with a hatch on top that can be opened and then rotated to keep the hatch between an officer and a source of possible gunfire.
There are "ports" with removable covers through the hatch, the driver's and passenger's doors, and along the sides of the vehicle's rear compartment, to allow those inside to have access to the outside for either talking or shooting.
The front compartment resembles a typical family's SUV, other than the unusual number of switches for lights and communications equipment. In the back, two benches line the steel walls, with room underneath for storage of equipment. The outer shell sports high handrails and running boards to permit officers to ride outside the vehicle during approaches to subject vehicles or buildings.
An external bullhorn/microphone permits communication with the outside, and the driver and passenger have headphones hooked up to radios that communicate with the dispatcher.
Ordered early in 2008, the vehicle was shipped to a trade show for display in Albuquerque, N.M., before being picked up by Cornelius and another deputy. He said that saved the department $6,600 in shipping costs. The vehicle currently has "about 1,300 miles" on the odometer.
The team practices regularly both with and without the BearCat, simulating scenarios and acting out their respective roles at everything from area shooting ranges, to fire department training centers, to homes that are slated for demolition (they warn the neighbors first).
He said the team, which includes 15 deputies whose duty rosters cover their AHRT work, has held training sessions at the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's bus barn in West Glenwood, to practice for such potential problems as hostage situations and other scenarios.
"While most of the county is sleeping at night, I'm the one, as the commander, who gets a lot of these calls," Cornelius said of his job. "And I don't think the average citizen knows just how close we come to having more of these major incidents ... every week. And I think it should be like that. You guys trust us to do this job, and to take care of the county, as far as law enforcement is concerned."
If the public knew more about all this, Cornelius maintained, "You would understand why we have a tactical team, and why we have the BearCat."