Since the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office put the newest addition to its fleet on the road a couple months ago, it has been the subject of plenty of conversations and turned heads.
The Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) MaxxPro is a towering 20-ton beast the agency was able to acquire free of charge — less shipping costs — through an ongoing partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). It will aid in disaster relief, raids, hostage situations and various other responses that pose immediate danger to law enforcement and those in harm’s way, sheriff’s officials said.
“We had the opportunity to acquire that vehicle for free through the Law Enforcement Support Services office,” said Capt. Doyle Grady, referring to the N.C. Department of Public Safety division known as LESS. “We’ve taken a military vehicle and modified it for local law enforcement purposes.”
As its name suggests, MRAPs were designed specifically to withstand improvised explosive device attacks and ambushes. The DoD’s MRAP program began in 2007 as a response to the increased threat of IEDs during the Iraq War. The program deployed more than 12,000 vehicles for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before production ended in 2012.
The LESS office provides excess DoD equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for their use. LESS works in conjunction with the DoD’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to administer and execute the federal 1033 program, which increases the capabilities of law enforcement agencies across North Carolina, while reducing costs to taxpayers.
Grady said there were hundreds of MRAPs in a field in California “with weeds growing around it,” deemed military surplus. A new MRAP is worth around $650,000, he noted, and the one Sampson was able to get had a mere 2,500 miles on it.
“We were looking for a multi-purpose vehicle,” said Lt. Marcus Smith. “This was a no-brainer. We want everything at our disposal to protect officers while protecting and responding to citizens in a timely manner.”
Agencies use MRAPs in disaster relief roles, as they can go through flooded areas unlike normal police armored vehicles, while also providing security in response to terrorist threats. Harnett and Duplin County sheriff’s offices, as well as Fayetteville Police Department, are among those that have MRAPs in their fleet.
Grady pointed to Hurricane Matthew as a catalyst for the acquisition of the MRAP for Sampson.
During Matthew, swift water rescue and search teams from Mooresville, Greensboro and Forsyth County were utilized to help Sampson residents. Many, including some deputies, were left stranded while local agencies waited for the out-of-county response.
“We saw the need that if we had to get into areas with high water, we could,” said Grady. “Matthew really caused us to say that we need something.”
“We needed to be independent,” added Smith. “We’re a small county and every piece of equipment we can get to save lives, we have to do that.”
Outside of Matthew, sheriff’s officials pointed to a few situations in which such a vehicle might have aided response and rescue. There was a standoff in March 2015, when a man was found parked on the side of U.S. 701 South (Garland Highway) sitting in the front passenger side of his vehicle. He threatened troopers who stopped to investigate with a poisonous gas contained in a box. The troopers backed off the scene, and the man ultimately took his own life by inhaling hydrogen sulfide.
During that incident, resources had to be requested from the state’s Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team, based at Fayetteville Fire and Rescue. The State Bureau of Investigation’s Bomb Disposal Unit also responded to the scene.
“We were out there for three-quarters of the day,” Grady said.
An armed gunman or hostage situation would present the same situation.
“If you had to wait on an armored vehicle, you might have to wait three hours, if you could even get one,” said Smith.
The MRAP was received by the Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 10, 2017. It took $6,000 in seized asset forfeiture money to foot the shipping costs and several months to get the vehicle ready.
Grady said the MRAP had to be stripped of its machine gun turret and the vehicle repainted black, a mandate for law enforcement. Along with the needed Sampson County Sheriff’s Office lettering, it was fitted with blue lights from existing stock as well as flood lights, purchased for $500.
Additionally, Ronnie Jackson helped unload the vehicle over at his Clinton Truck & Tractor business when it was shipped from the West Coast. Freddie Thornton and Thornton’s Body Shop painted the vehicle, with Barnes Motor & Parts providing the paint. LESS will also be able to periodically help out if spare equipment and tires are needed, Capt. Kenneth Cannady noted. Otherwise, maintenance falls on the Sheriff’s Office.
The DLA does not transfer property to the agencies, so the vehicles are allocated with costs picked up by the agencies using them, while the vehicles remain the property of the Defense Department.
Grady said a drawback is the low fuel efficiency due to the weight of the armored vehicle, which operates on diesel fuel. However, he noted that the lifespan of the vehicle could be upwards of 40 years.
“We’ll be retired eating breakfast at Bojangles and this vehicle will still be on the road,” Smith remarked.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said the vehicle has already made the rounds to Salemburg’s Halloween festivities and Harrells Community Day, where Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose called it a “rescue vehicle.” The sheriff said he liked that, because despite its massive size and intimidating look, that’s what it is.
“That thing does trip people’s triggers,” said Thornton. “It raises the attention levels.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s about communicating the purpose of the MRAP too, sheriff’s officials said.
“There’s a negative stigma about militarization of police,” said Smith. “We’re not trying to militarize; we’re trying to protect the public. We have to adapt to the times. We’re not in Mayberry anymore, so we have to be equipped to deal with what is happening in today’s society. This benefits the public as much as it does law enforcement. This is something the public can be proud of. It’s also heavily regulated and any misuse by an agency would forfeit the loan on it.”
“If it saves one life,” said Thornton, “it’s worth it all.”
The sheriff plans on having the MRAP roll through local communities in upcoming Christmas parades in Clinton, Roseboro and Newton Grove. He encouraged everyone to come out and see it.
“It’s more impressive in person,” the sheriff attested.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.