Wis. police defend new military vehicle

Madison police are rolling out a new armored vehicle officials say will protect officers and the public in dangerous situations

By Nico Savidge
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Madison police are rolling out a new armored vehicle officials say will protect officers and the public in dangerous situations. But, they say, the vehicle doesn't mark a shift toward a more militarized style of policing.

A number of law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin have taken advantage of a Department of Defense program giving away military vehicles left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of former military vehicles in civilian law enforcement has prompted questions from critics, however, about whether the vehicles are necessary and if they lead to paramilitary police departments.

Capt. Vic Wahl, who oversees the Madison Police Department's West District and SWAT team, said the vehicle will help when officers deal with armed suspects and other dangerous situations.

The department got the vehicle last fall and recently put it into service with emergency lights, a new paint job and Madison Police markings.

"All too frequently we're seeing violent, weapons-related offenses that pose a huge risk to officers and to citizens," Wahl said. He referred to the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek in which six people were killed and a police officer was badly wounded by a gunman.

"When those happen we ask our officers to go and respond to them, and we want to be able to give them the proper protection," Wahl said.

Acquiring the Navistar Defense MaxxPro Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — now rechristened by police as an Armored Rescue Vehicle — may seem an interesting choice for a department whose chief has criticized the militarization of police forces elsewhere.

Other departments, including in the Fox Cities region of Wisconsin, have faced questions about their acquisition of the multi-ton vehicles.

But Wahl said the vehicles have proven themselves useful in other cities, and simply having one at the ready does not signal a shift toward more heavy-handed policing tactics.

The question of militarization comes down to "How do the police treat citizens? How do you resolve conflicts?"

Wahl said. "Not, 'What do you drive?'"

"This vehicle does not change our philosophy," Chief Mike Koval said in a blog post last week.

Wahl said the department would have preferred a civilian rescue vehicle such as the Dane County Sheriff's Office's BearCat.

The problem was, Wahl said, "They don't give them away." A BearCat costs about $250,000.

"The price was right for this one," Wahl said, since the department only had to pay the cost of bringing the armored vehicle from Indiana to Madison.

Wahl said the department hopes maintenance costs will be low because the department won't use the vehicle often.

Copyright 2014 The Wisconsin State Journal 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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