LEWISTON — People flocked to Marcotte Park on Tuesday for National Night Out as the Police Department showed of its newest additions: a robot and an armored personnel carrier.
National Night Out is held each August to support crime and drug prevention and to provide a fun atmosphere for local law enforcement and other first responders to connect with their community.
A DJ played music as Walmart supplied grilled hot dogs and chips to residents who mingled among the tables and displays. Kids played games, participated in arts and crafts and played in the bounce house and inflatable obstacle course.
Mr. Drew and His Animals Too entertained crowds with a giant boa constrictor, rabbits, tortoises and a dancing cockatoo.
Children clambered in and out of ambulances as well as the Lewiston Police Department Critical Incident Response Unit, a mobile command center full of computers and other devices.
Oh, and there was a tank.
Well, a 1981 M113APC, to be exact. But with a brutish exterior complete with asphalt-friendly tracks and sporting new LPD decals and paint, it's not your ordinary cruiser.
Nearby, Sgt. Michael Whalen operated another new arrival, the MARCbot IV, or Multi-Functional Agile Remote Controlled Robot, fresh from the U.S. Army and complete with an Xbox controller.
Speaking of the armored personnel carrier, or APC, Whalen said, "We just had it detailed this week." He said the department has had the robot about three months and a pair of APCs for one month. The second APC is being kept as a sort of parts car.
"It's just for rescue," Whalen assured a curious crowd. "There's no armament."
The vehicle was transferred to the LPD by Portland, which was upgrading to the more modern Bearcat model used by Maine State Police, Whalen said.
He said the day they were picking up equipment for the robot unit, John Gills of the Scarborough Police Department, who manages military equipment for Maine, told them of the Portland vehicles.
And what of the cost to taxpayers? Whalen said both vehicles and the robot were free to the LPD as a reallocation of military surplus. A month is a long time to have such a vehicle under wraps. Whalen doubted the new vehicle would make it to its first public appearance without being discovered.
"I'm surprised (the Sun Journal) didn't get any phone calls," Whalen said, with a month of storage and outdoor practice at the Public Works complex on River Road.
He said the new vehicle would be of great service in rescue and hazardous-materials situations, adding that it could have been of great use fighting a forest fire this spring along the power lines.
The COBRA insignia painted on the side of the new vehicle attests to its new mission: chemical, ordnance, biological, radiological agents.
Lewiston Chief Michael Bussiere watched as a constant stream of children climbed into the vehicle and parents snapped photos.
One mother asked if there was a way officers could take her children's pictures and send her a copy. After a brief address exchange, an officer arranged to take the pictures with a phone and send mom printed photos.
"If nothing else, the kids like it," Bussiere said. "It's a good community policing tool."
Speaking further of its role as a rescue and tactical unit, Bussiere said, "Hopefully, it's a tool we'll rarely have to use."
As crowds filtered out of the park and tables were broken down and stacked, the APC roared to life.
Inside, the ride was exhilarating if far from luxurious. Turns lurched as the engine rattled in the steel-box interior. Diesel exhaust filled the air as the tracks on the pavement caused bones and teeth to rattle.
Heads turned as the vehicle rolled through city streets with an escort. Smiles and waves from the open hatch met surprised residents as Detective James Theiss manned the controls on the way back to River Road.