Life-savers: Local police agencies use ‘BEAR’, drones and other tools in emergency situations

Butler County emergency response agencies have a bevvy of specialized vehicles and equipment, and while they aren’t deployed daily, they are used more often than one might think.

Few are funded with local taxpayer dollars.

Recently, West Chester Twp. officials had a discussion about spending nearly $25,000 to replace the bulletproof glass on their 2006 Ballistic Engineered Armored Response (BEAR) vehicle.

“I’m just wondering has it ever been utilized such that there even existed a need for it,” Fiscal Officer Bruce Jones asked.

Officials joked a bit about whether they even know if the glass has lost it’s strength, and Township Administrator Larry Burks said they can’t take that chance.

“Are you suggesting we take a few shots at it to see if it works,” Burks said jokingly, but added. “It’s all precautionary, it’s all safety and security for the officers that are in that vehicle and if the feathers do hit the fan and that BEAR rolls out and someone’s shooting at it, I for one want the bullets not to go through the glass.”

The most dramatic incident that demonstrated the need for bulletproof equipment was a 2018 hostage situation in Liberty Twp. Donald Tobias Gazaway held a 10-year-old boy at gunpoint during a 30-hour standoff with police.

West Chester and Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones both deployed their vehicles — the county and Hamilton share the BEAR — to the scene.

“He kept shooting at our equipment and we had people in there trying to negotiate with him,” Jones said. “The bullets were bouncing off of the glass. You know it comes to you as bulletproof but you really don’t know 100% when they’re shooting at you and it’s bouncing off the glass, the guys that were inside they were still ducking.”

SWAT vehicles aren’t just for standoffs

Police Chief Joel Herzog told the Journal-News they use the BEAR multiple times a year and it isn’t just for the officers’ safety.

“Each year it just depends but it’s multiple times a year the BEAR is utilized,” Herzog said. “Anytime there’s somebody with a weapon it allows us to get closer, up front and provide protection and immediately allows us to evacuate anybody that could be in the line of fire because now the BEAR is blocking it.”

They also sometimes deploy the vehicle when making arrests, serving search warrants and in other potentially dangerous situations.

The sheriff’s 2010 vehicle was funded through a regional Homeland Security grant. The township bought the BEAR in 2008 for $238,734 using forfeiture funds.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The township has spent $553,838 in forfeiture funds to purchase four SWAT-type vehicles including the BEAR. Over the past five years the police have culled an average $40,984 annually from drug fines and forfeitures, sale of assets and other applicable revenues. The total collected so far this year is $57,084 and the fund has a balance of $571,656.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Jones has a whole stable of vehicles and equipment, namely two helicopters, five water rescue boats, a huge multi-tasking vehicle for responding to things like silo rescues and a bomb truck, to name but a few.

The biggest ticket item, a new helicopter, was purchased in 2021 for nearly $600,000, it replaced the 2006 Robinson R-44 Raven II aircraft the county sold on the GovDeals auction, culling about half the cost for the new whirlybird. They paid for the remainder with drug forfeiture money. The other chopper was military surplus.

Jones told the Journal-News they fly skies over the county patrolling four or five hours a week and the pilots all have other full-time jobs on his staff. That operation is also funded with drug forfeitures.

The bomb truck was purchased about 30 years ago with a grant. Jones said “it would just shock you at the callouts” they get for potential bomb threats. A grant also paid for a bomb robot, “you would think we would never use that but we do, it can actually pick packages up and explode them or take them to certain places were we can put them in a container.”

All the tools are handy

The sheriff said he can’t really pick the most important tool in his equipment belt.

“This day and time you’ve got to have a little bit of everything and you’ve got to be prepared...,” Jones said. “I can’t tell you which is more important, it’s all important because it all gets used. If you don’t have it that means you have to go to try and find it, and by that time, a lot of times it’s too late.”

The other jurisdictions understandably don’t have the arsenal the sheriff does but they benefit from it. Oxford Police Chief John Jones said as a member of the Butler County Regional SWAT Team they have access to the BEAR — some refer to it a Bearcat — vehicle and “we appreciate the partnership with this team as it is difficult for a small agency like Oxford to procure a necessary piece of equipment like a Bearcat.”

Middletown has its own MRAP armored vehicle it got through military surplus a few years ago and spent around $15,000 refurbishing it, according to Police Chief David Birk. He said they have deployed it about 30 times and just the imposing appearance is enough to deter many bad-actors.

“It is such a great vehicle because a lot of times when the SWAT team pulls up in the armored vehicle we’ve had success of people saying okay I’m coming out,” Birk said.

Hamilton has another SWAT vehicle that isn’t armored that is utilized as a command center, according to Sgt. Brian Ungerbuehler.

“It is used for storing equipment, transportation and also as a command post for the team members,” he said adding “During planned operations, such as a search warrant, the truck will also be used to transport team members to a specific location.”

While not as showy, several departments also have drone programs, and West Chester Police Capt. Seth Hagaman said they are invaluable tools on many fronts. They can find missing people at night with infrared cameras.

He said they have one that can actually fly indoors “to assess whether there is a live suspect waiting to ambush officers without putting officers at risk to go into that space.”

He said they also do 3-D imagining for crash scenes because it has very accurate measurements from the air and they work with the sheriff’s office using their 3-D scanner. He said this is a good example of how the various agencies avoid duplication of resources.

“We both share equipment together so we don’t all just duplicate each other’s specialty equipment,” Hagaman said. “We look at what each other has and try to complement each other and work together.”

Hagaman said police agencies are allowed to use drug forfeiture dollars, proceeds from a crime — after it goes through the court process — and they are always looking for state and federal grants. West Chester also uses TIF funds for some things.

Jones said he can’t remember the last time they used local taxpayer funds for equipment like these specialty items.

“Almost all of it that I can think of is gotten with grant money or drug seizure money,” the sheriff said. “Where we seize things from the drug dealers or we get them from the government surplus.”

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