Full speed ahead

Sheriff pushes for armored vehicle

click to enlarge Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell in 2014 with an armored vehicle that now belongs to the LaSalle County sheriff's office. - PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON
Photo by Bruce Rushton
Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell in 2014 with an armored vehicle that now belongs to the LaSalle County sheriff's office.
Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell says that he remains committed to bringing an armored vehicle to the sheriff's department despite opposition from the Faith Coalition for the Common Good.

"This is an important issue to me because I'm afraid the vehicle will be used against peaceful demonstrators and deaths may result," Susan Allen, a coalition member, told county board members at a March board meeting. "I've seen news coverage of these vehicles advancing toward protestors, and it's frightening. It reminds me of a totalitarian regime."

Campbell says that he's spoken to members of the coalition and Black Lives Matter about his plans. "We've had several conversations," Campbell says. "We just have a difference of opinion. I believe our intent is not to patrol with this or use it against peaceful protestors." The department currently doesn't have a vehicle capable of stopping a round from a high-powered rifle, he said.

"This is for protecting the people of the county and protecting our deputies," Campbell said.

Campbell has his eye on an Army surplus armored vehicle that's designed to withstand mine blasts. The department sent someone to Nevada last year to look at available models and settled on one that weighs about half what the department once had. The department's previous vehicle, also designed to protect occupants from mines and gunfire, was acquired in 2014 and disposed of in 2016, after the late Wes Barr defeated Campbell and became sheriff. The vehicle is now owned by the LaSalle County sheriff's office, which says that it's handy for rescuing folks from floods, barreling through blizzards and responding to shots-fired calls.

"This is a rescue-and-deliver vehicle," Campbell says. In Sangamon County, Campbell says, an armored vehicle would be used for such duties as delivering phones to barricaded gunmen and keeping cops out of harm's way. The sole deployment of the county's previous vehicle came when a man with a gun threatened people at a Riverton-area mobile home court. "He would step out of the mobile home and point a gun," Campbell recalls. "We tried to negotiate with him." The man surrendered when the armored vehicle bearing deputies pulled up to the edge of the mobile home's yard, Campbell says.

That such incidents happen infrequently shows that the department doesn't need an armored vehicle, says Shelly Heideman, Faith Coalition executive director. "If that happens once in a blue moon, why can't you call the National Guard?" Heideman asks. Campbell says that would take too long.

"They're not available at the drop of a hat," the sheriff says. "Everyone knows there's a lot of red tape with the military."

Campbell says that he would not have deployed an armored vehicle in response to protests in Springfield last year after the death of George Floyd. "It would be an extreme situation before we would deploy it in a situation like that," the sheriff said. "The only reason would be a viable threat of someone firing shots." Appearances in parades, also, would be a possibility. "I think I would be in favor of that," Campbell said. "It lets the public see it."

Campbell says he doesn't know when the county might acquire a vehicle. The one in Nevada that the department covets must be moved to a different location before the sheriff's office could pick it up, Campbell said. Costs would be limited to transportation expenses. In the case of the vehicle acquired in 2014, the department paid $6,400 in transportation costs. The vehicle was, essentially, brand new, with 764 miles on the odometer. It arrived in Springfield still bearing a window sticker showing the original purchase price as $733,000.

Such a vehicle, Heideman says, undercuts efforts to build trust and community policing.

"We should be building relationships with the community, not riding around in an armored vehicle trying to intimidate people," Heideman says. "I think there's too big an opportunity for it to be misused."

A bill passed this year and signed by Gov. JB Pritzker restricts police departments from acquiring armored vehicles from the military, but the restrictions don't apply to vehicles with wheels as opposed to tracks and vehicles that don't have affixed weapons, and so the vehicle sought by the sheriff isn't covered.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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