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Grand Traverse County leaders approve funding for armored vehicle

A prototype of a BearCat armored vehicle.

An armored vehicle arrived at Oxford High School when police were alerted to an active shooter there last month.

While it couldn’t have saved the lives of the students killed by the teenage gunman, Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said at the county commission meeting Wednesday it’s exactly what you want at the ready when the worst happens.

“I can’t subscribe to the theory that it won’t or it can’t happen here because I’m sure many in Oxford, Michigan had the same feeling of safety and security," Bensley said. "Hope is not a plan.”

Grand Traverse County commissioners set aside funds Wednesday for the purchase of a BearCat armored vehicle after discussing its intended purpose and potential impact to the public.

Commissioners reported they heard from about 175 people the majority of whom opposed the purchase of the $260,000 vehicle.

“A lot of people are anxious because they see there’s more danger, therefore we have to be more aggressive or assertive in our protection, and it’s like a cycle of violence that’s leading us to like a RoboCop future," said Commissioner Bryce Hundley.

How communities protect themselves is a growing concern but solutions aren’t always agreed on.

Sheriff Bensley said the 17,500 pound bulletproof car would protect police as they respond to extremely dangerous situations, like hostage events.

The county has access to a BearCat located in Grayling, that has been shared among all of northern lower Michigan police departments since 2009.

Commissioner Darryl Nelson said if Grand Traverse County had one of its own, police could use it 100 times a year. Neighboring counties would also be able to use it and get it much faster.

At the meeting, the Sheriff’s Department officials gave examples from decades ago. Sheriff Bensley said an armored vehicle would have helped when a team spent the night in a standoff with an armed man in his home in Interlochen.

“Had it been available at that time a BearCat armored vehicle would have been used to protect officers moving from various concealment positions and evacuating neighbors in close proximity to the suspect’s house," he said.

Commission Chairman Rob Hentschel said he attended the North American Active Assailant Conference and saw how tools like armored vehicles can save lives.

“What I saw time and time again is when bullets start flying the masses of humanity run away from them, except for the guys in blue who are running towards those bullets," he said. "Some of the guys in blue take bullets and when that happens they can’t always get them out right away.”

While all the commissioners agreed protecting cops is paramount, some worry the purchase would outfit deputies more like the U.S. troops.

Commissioner Hundley referenced the national protests that followed George Floyd’s killing last year, where armored vehicles were used as riot control and added to the unrest.

“When there are protests and now the big vehicles come out and it feels very 'us' versus 'them'. Very good guys versus bad guys," he said.

Betsy Coffia, another commissioner opposed, said the allocated funds would be better spent providing mental health care to inmates at the county jail. But police and commissioners in favor said those are two separate issues and there isn’t a reason why both can’t be addressed.

In the end, the commission voted 5-2 to provide funding for the armored vehicle, although Chairman Hentschel said he’s open to continuing the discussion.

“I invite the public to change my mind," he said. "If you can show me where this is being used across the nation or world to intimidate people or to harass law abiding citizens, well that’s a different story.”

The issue will be revisited when the sheriff’s office makes its official request to purchase the vehicle.