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Sheriff's Office gains new SWAT armored vehicle
BearCat with (left to right) Sheriff Eric Levett, Conyers Police Department Officer Chase Bagwell, RCSO Deputy Mason West, RCSO Deputy Rene Shirley, RCSO Sgt. Jeremy Mote, RCSO Sgt. Jake Coggins, CPD Sgt. Greg Carson, RCSO Chief Deputy Scott Freeman

The Rockdale County Sheriff's Office's new armored BearCat SWAT vehicle is ready for operation and even hit the Rockdale streets Thursday afternoon. But this new vehicle doesn't mean the RCSO is becoming militarized, says Sheriff Eric Levett

The Rockdale County Board of Commissioners approved the funding for the BearCat in December after being informed the SWAT team had been using a blue 1989 Dodge van for years.

"I want to thank the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners for their continued support in making sure the men and women of the RCSO have the proper equipment to keep them safe," said Sheriff Eric Levett in a press release. "The SWAT team is a very important part of the RCSO, and being able to give them better equipment to keep them safe is a top priority of mine."

The BearCat, which was built specifically for the RCSO, took approximately six months to build, equip, and outfit. It's an armored incident response and rescue vehicle used by law enforcement agencies to respond to dangerous situations.

This new vehicle doesn't mean the RCSO is becoming militarized, according to Levett. He pointed out that he decided not to acquire a 14-ton armored vehicle called the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, MRAP, vehicle because it wasn't appropriate to have on Rockdale County streets.

"Vehicles such as the MRAP were designed for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, not for use the citizens of Rockdale County," said Levett. "I personally looked at (a) MRAP and compared it to the BearCat. The MRAP is about three times the size of the BearCat and is truly a beast. While the SWAT team needs the added protection because of the high risk situations to which they respond, I did not want a military MRAP out here in the community."

But, if another local agency did purchase a vehicle such as the MRAP, Levett said he wouldn't be the one to judge.

He said that local law enforcement's decision to go to more military-styled equipment depends heavily on the crime rate of the community, the type of people living in the community and what the agency needs to do to get the crime under control.

"Each agency has to right to analyze the equipment best suited for the community," said Levett in a phone interview. "If we just really look at things before we make judgments, people may understand."

Local law enforcement using military-style equipment on American civilians has been a national debate for the past two weeks since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot multiple times and killed by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Levett admits that before the shooting in Ferguson, he never heard anyone talk about whether law enforcement had too much equipment.

"How did our concern about militarization become greater than safety?" he asked.

He referenced situations such as the 1999 Heritage High School shooting as unexpected incidents that no one in the Rockdale community ever thought would happen, so law enforcement has to prepare for the worst.

"We cannot predict the future," Levett said. "But, what I can do is prepare (my deputies) and send the men and women home the same way they came (to work)."

The BearCat is equipped with run-flat tires, bullet resistant glass, and a ballistic resistant exterior layer that is designed to protect the SWAT team from gunfire. It's expected to last between 15 and 20 years.

It will be deployed whenever the SWAT the team is called upon for help which could be for incidents, such as issuing a high-risk warrant to a dangerous and violent suspect or hostage situations.

The BearCat was put to work immediately by the SWAT team while assisting on a drug-related case Thursday.

"You never know when you're going to encounter a violent suspect," said Levett.