PARIS — The Oxford County Sheriff's Office is planning to beef up its fleet of vehicles with a bulletproof, explosive-resistant armored personnel carrier, courtesy of the U.S. military.
At its meeting Monday, Oxford County commissioners voted to accept the vehicle, which is being offered for free through the Pentagon't Law Enforcement Support Office, which shifts surplus military equipment to U.S. law enforcement agencies at significantly reduced or no cost.
Oxford County is one of seven law enforcement agencies in Maine to receive Navstar Defense MaxxPro Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicles. The four-wheeled units weigh 38,000 pounds, are about the size of a tractor-trailer truck and run on diesel fuel. They carry four or five stretchers and are worth $658,000.
Cumberland and Franklin county sheriff's offices, and Brunswick, Sanford, Old Orchard Beach and South Portland police departments were also approved to receive the vehicles.
The vehicles were designed to protect U.S. soldiers from deadly improvised explosive devices on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide started to receive them through the program last month.
Oxford County Sheriff's Cpl. George Cayer, in a Sept. 6 memo to Sheriff Wayne Gallant, said the vehicle will allow deputies to respond more safely to dangerous situations in Oxford County, as well as neighboring counties, and could save lives, especially in the case of a mass shooting or terrorist attack.
"The Western Foothills of the State of Maine, primarily the Oxford County area as well as the area surrounding Oxford County, currently face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities," Cayer said in a six-page memo.
Cayer suggested that in a "mass casualty" event, smaller municipal police forces and emergency services will look to the Sheriff's Office and Maine State Police for support to respond and evacuate victims.
"It is therefore crucial that our personnel be equipped properly to deal safely with these events when they occur," Cayer wrote.
Deputies' cruisers are vulnerable to explosions or small-arms fire, and personel who have the training and expertise to resolve a possible event "are put in the greatest risk before they are able to deploy and may, in fact, be eliminated before any organized response can be coordinated," Cayer said in the memo.
Primarily, the vehicle is envisioned to transport emergency medical personnel into dangerous areas. Local emergency responders are expected to train with the vehicle in conjunction with the Sheriff's Office.
"By providing the Emergency Response Unit with a hardened rescue vehicle we enhance our capabilities to safely respond to nearly any Weapon of Mass Destruction/Terrorist Incident or hostile weapon situation they may encounter," Cayer wrote.
Sheriff Gallant, in an interview Wednesday, said the "hardened rescue vehicle" gives the Sheriff's Office an opportunity to better respond to dangerous emergencies, but would not be used offensively.
The OCSO intends to house the vehicle in a central location in Oxford County so it can be accessed rapidly if needed, Gallant said. Designated drivers will be assigned to bring the vehicle to where it is needed.
It is becoming more frequent to see dangerous situations with active shooters and high death counts in rural locations, Gallant said. In a lot of the cases, he said, victims did not survive because emergency medical personnel couldn't get to them in time.
The addition of the personnel carrier could allow deputies to advance rapidly and safely into a scene with live gunfire, potentially saving lives and ending the situation more quickly, Gallant said.
"It's just going to be a safety tool, it's not going to be used as a patrol until or anything like that," he said. "Maybe it will never be used."
Some organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have decried the use of equipment like the armored personnel carrier by U.S. police departments, warning of the creeping militarization of U.S. law enforcement.
Gallant said the Sheriff's Office was very sensitive to those concerns and intended to deflect the military appearance of the vehicle by painting it white and affixing OCSO decals.
"We want to utilize it for all of its capabilities, but we certainly don't want to display it as an offensive, militaristic piece of equipment," Gallant said.
Deputies intended to visit Fort Drum in New York to see the carrier when it becomes available. Gallant hoped to have it back in Oxford County by early next year.