WILLIMANTIC, Conn. (AP) — Eyes grow wide and jaws hang slack as the MRAP rumbles on to Meadow Street from the Willimantic Police Department.
In town since October, the behemoth armored vehicle is imposing beyond expectation and exactly what Willimantic needed, according the police officers who use it and the town leaders who approved it.
“This is not a violent city,” Police Officer Stan Parizo Jr., the Willimantic Police Department’s SWAT Team leader, said. “But we have a lot of narcotics here, a lot of high risk warrants. We have the need here, and now we have the equipment.”
Willimantic Police Chief Lisa Maruzo-Bolduc had wanted an armored vehicle for the department for a while, but its need became very clear to everyone in town last June. Officer Kevin Winkler was shot during an incident on Tunxis Lane and it was difficult to figure out where the shooter was, Maruzo-Bolduc said.
“We had a wounded officer pinned down in there,” Maruzo-Bolduc said. “That reinforced to us that we needed a rescue vehicle.”
The department had been on a list to receive surplus military vehicles, but had not gotten a call. Instead, Maruzo-Bolduc began investigating options to purchase an armored vehicle and found her cheapest option was an $80,000 armored large pick-up truck.
Then, the call came about the MRAP in July, which was given to the department for free.
“I think the Town Council was a little bit dismayed,” Maruzo-Bolduc said. “It’s probably bigger than we need, but when you don’t have any money, you take what you can get.”
Not only was the MRAP free, but all the work, including the paint, decals, light bar and the work needed to install it were paid for through donations.
The MRAP is a former military vehicle that saw time in either Iraq or Afghanistan. MRAP means mine resistant ambush protected and is credited with significantly reducing the number of killed and wounded soldiers from roadside bombings. The U.S. Military ordered more than 20,000 of them at the height of military operations in the Middle East. They are valued at about $1 million per vehicle and can withstand ammunition far greater than that found on even the most violent American streets.
Police Officer Jonathan Lisee is the primary driver for the MRAP and he trained the other members of the SWAT to drive the vehicle as well. He served in Iraq and drove an MRAP 12-14 hours every day for a year.
“When I would drive it over there it sounded like it was being hit by rocks the entire time we were on the road,” Lisee said. “It was the sound of bullets bouncing off it. Here we only have to think about getting to our location and the roads are a lot better here.”
The MRAP has been deployed, although Parizo and SWAT Commander Sgt. Rob Rosado declined to comment on the specifics.
It’s likely the vehicle won’t sit idle for long. The SWAT had its busiest year ever in 2013 with 19 calls, giving it the third highest number of calls in the state, Parizo said.
It’s also likely the vehicle will be seen outside of Willimantic, Rosado said. Rosado said the department has mutual aid agreements with a number of departments in the region and also serves Plainfield. Willimantic’s SWAT has also been involved in operations in New London.
Mayor Ernie Eldridge said he knows the vehicle has concerned some residents. But, so did the police dog unit when it began, Eldridge said.
“I think once people see how it’s used they won’t be as worried about it,” Eldridge said. “It’s meant to protect the citizens of this city.”
Parizo said the vehicle is all about protection and not aggression. He said it can be used to deploy officers safely, rescue officers and residents and negotiate in barricade situations.
“When people see this truck they will know we’re there to keep them safe,” Parizo said. “That’s really the most important thing.”