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Friday, July 25, 2014

Wichita SWAT team gets new heavy-duty armored vehicle

The Wichita Eagle

In recent years, as Wichita drug dealers and gang members grew a little more sophisticated, some of them installed cameras at their homes to alert them when police arrive.

Serving drug search warrants is one of the more dangerous jobs in law enforcement. One of the last things a police officer wants to see when he approaches a door is camera staring back.

As of this week, Wichita police have a heavily armored answer for a situation like that — and for many others including hostage rescues and domestic violence standoffs.

With grants of $165,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Wichita police this week acquired a BATT mobile, a 19,000-pound armored tactical vehicle, with inches-thick steel on all sides, a revolving gun turret on top, and enough room inside to store rifles, tear gas, flash grenades, vehicle cameras, and a dozen highly trained officers wearing 35 pounds of Kevlar.

SWAT team members like Kevin Kochenderfer say they've needed their own state-of-the-art armored vehicle for a long time. This one is so heavy that the SWAT members testing it at the Wichita-Sedgwick County gun range near Lake Afton on Wednesday wondered, jokingly or not, whether it might bust up the gun range sidewalks they drove over as they practiced tactical rescues.

The general name for it is Ballistic Armored Tactical Transport, which makes it the BATT mobile for real. The manufacturer even designed an artistic-looking black bat into the heavily armored black front grill, and the armored trim over the windshield made it look like the vehicle stares at the world with mean-looking hooded eyes.

This is deliberate, Kochenderfer said on Wednesday: If you're inclined to shoot at a police officer, you might be less inclined if the BATT rolls up within inches of your front door, with the hooded eyes, the bat grill, the gun ports, a sniper aiming at you from the revolving gun turret on top, and a dozen guys wearing helmets and vests tumbling out the back end.

Many of Wichita's SWAT team members strapped on their Kevlar body armor on Wednesday, picked up their rifles and practiced tactical rescues, repeatedly rescuing Patrol North's Officer Jamie Crouch, a SWAT officer who several times enthusiastically portrayed an officer lying wounded outside the gun range's practice house.

The vehicle is so heavy that part of Wednesday's training was meant to help the driver sort out how awkwardly it maneuvers. He drove gingerly, approaching Crouch's prone body closely but not wanting such a huge vehicle to roll over Crouch's sprawled legs.

Teams of SWAT — Special Weapons and Tactics — officers rolled up to him time after time, with riflemen hopping out through the two small 400-pound doors, aiming rifles while two firefighters (the medics for SWAT), picked up Crouch. Crouch so successfully portrayed a limp body that they almost dropped him once, loading him in the back of the van.

Kochenderfer, the team's assistant leader and a veteran of several SWAT shootings, said SWAT gets called out about once every 10 days or so.

Many SWAT calls involve domestic violence with drugs and alcohol involved. One of the key problems to overcome is how to approach a house where a potential shooter inside can see approaching officers but they can't see him.

Before this week, the team had access to an armored vehicle, but it was owned by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and was not always available. SWAT's commander, Lt. Kevin Vaughn, also a veteran of shootings, said he's wanted to find a way to get the department its own. They have it now, and plan to use it to protect people in Wichita and 19 counties in south central Kansas.

Part of the purpose of Wednesday's exercise was to see how much shelter from bullets the new vehicle would provide the team when they hopped out on the ground and picked up the wounded man. For example, could they drive it up to a house in such a way that the men outside the vehicle would be able to use the vehicle as a shield?

Not entirely, they decided. After several test-rescues of Crouch, they realized, several of their guys would still be exposed for a time as they picked up a wounded person.

Still, Vaughn said, the BATT will make SWAT officers safer than they were.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or

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