Bullets, Budgets and Orlando: Cecil County Deputies Get Anti-Ballistic Helmets, Despite Budget Cuts; Helmet Saves Cop in Orlando

June 17, 2016

All Cecil County Sheriff’s deputies are now equipped with anti-ballistic helmets that could save police lives in a confrontation with a mass shooter—such as the recent Orlando murders—despite Cecil County Council budget cuts last year that slashed funds for riot gear. But the county still lacks other equipment that could save lives in the event of a major shooting incident here.

The recent mass shootings at an Orlando, Florida nightclub highlighted the importance of life-saving equipment for law enforcement agencies, including anti-ballistic helmets that saved the life of a police officer and a heavily-armored vehicle used to ram a hole in the building to free wounded and terrified people while the shooter was still firing. The shooter, who was eventually killed by police after he murdered 49 people and wounded almost as many other patrons of the club, fired a shot directly at the head of a police officer but the bullet was deflected by a helmet.

Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams told Cecil Times that, although his Fiscal 2016 budget for “riot gear” was cut nearly in half, his department “scrounged” from other line items, including training programs, to come up with enough funds to equip all current deputies with the potentially life-saving anti-ballistic helmets. He said that all new hires will automatically get the special helmets as part of the “equipment” costs associated with each new addition to the county force.

Adams had originally requested $89,000 for the current fiscal year to equip deputies with helmets, face shields, heavy duty sticks and similar riot gear. But the County Council, as part of spending cuts totaling over $2.6 million to County Executive Tari Moore’s proposed budget, initially deleted the riot gear funds, on a motion by Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3). But Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and George Patchell (R-4) then found other budget cuts to restore $36,000 to the gear fund and eventually $18,000 in other savings ended up in that account, for a total of $54,000. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report on the budget actions here: http://ceciltimes.com/2015/06/cecil-county-council-lobs-budget-ball-over-moores-net-schools-get-love-but-in-tennis-and-politics-love-zero/ ] In addition, a majority of the Council approved a last-minute, $150,000 across-the-board cut in the Sheriff’s budget initiated by Council President Robert Hodge (R-5).

Despite shuffling funds around within the Sheriff’s Department reduced budget this year to cover the helmet expenses, training has not been short-changed and in fact the county’s deputies are getting increased specialized training to deal with a variety of crisis situations, from riots to “active shooters.” All deputies receive basic crowd control and riot duty training, Adams said, and 28 deputies have gone through a “mobile field force” training program in conjunction with other local police agencies in the area. In addition, some deputies have participated in a program with the FBI for “advanced law enforcement rapid response training” (ALERT).

The Orlando massacre also illustrated the benefits of having a heavily armored “Bearcat” or similar vehicle that can ram through building walls to rescue hostages or shooting victims. But a Bearcat can cost over $250,000, according to Major George Stanko, head of the law enforcement division of the Sheriff’s department. Harford County has purchased its own armored vehicles, he said, and even some smaller counties, such as St. Mary’s and Wicomico counties, have added heavily armored vehicles to their operations. The closest armored vehicles to respond to a potential Cecil County crisis would be from Harford County, requiring travel over the Hatem or Susquehanna bridge that could delay response time.

“I’m trying to be frugal,” Adams said, and his agency has applied to obtain surplus US military equipment rather than asking local taxpayers to foot the bill for an armored vehicle, such as an armored HUMVEE or Bearcat. But the federal “1033 Program” has been stalled, after there were some public and legislative outcries in Washington that local police agencies were being “militarized” by transfers of military equipment to local use.

Adams said the federal military surplus program should be revived with better operating procedures, since the now suspended program was full of “ridiculous” rules, such as requiring a local police agency that wanted a HUMVEE to be forced to take obsolete or useless items like “bayonets” as part of a required package deal. It was as though the US military was cleaning out the basement with a yard sale that required agencies to take out the garbage in order to get some of the good stuff on the top of the box.

“We are increasingly dealing with militarized situations” around the nation, Adams observed, with risks of explosive devices, rapid-fire weapons and “lone wolf” terrorists or deranged individuals intent on killing as many people as possible. “It makes perfect sense,” he said, to have military-style equipment available locally to respond to such situations.

Law enforcement tactics have also changed, with greater emphasis on quick response to try to minimize fatalities and subdue or take down the suspect as quickly as possible. Adams noted that the preferred tactics had changed since the Columbine school shootings, when authorities on scene awaited the deployment of SWAT team forces. Now, the preferred strategy is to have the first deputies or police arriving on the scene begin an immediate response that is then bolstered by additional specialized teams as they arrive, Adams explained.

During the budget debate last year, some Council members and citizens sought to minimize the risk of a riot or mass shooting in largely rural Cecil County to bolster arguments to cut the Sheriff’s budget request. But Adams told Cecil Times that the Orlando murders—the worst mass shooting incident in the nation’s history—shows that “it can happen anywhere.” In addition, Cecil County’s location along the I-95 corridor connecting major urban centers from New York to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., already makes the area a major drug-traffic route that also gives potential terrorists a direct path between urban targets.

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