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The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office now has an armored vehicle of its own, upgrading this month from a long, unarmored Ford van to an 18,000-pound, bulletproof Lenco BearCat this month.

The sheriff’s emergency services team used it last week when executing a warrant to what was deemed a high-risk target.

In armed barricade situations, the sheriff’s office previously relied on Calvert County to bring its BearCat to St. Mary’s.

Now all three Southern Maryland law enforcement agencies have armored vehicles, which can be used to support each other in emergencies, said Tim Cameron (R), St. Mary’s sheriff.

The BearCat cost $266,759, which was purchased using funds forfeited in local and federal drug cases. “The people we protect ourselves from with it are the ones who paid for it,” Cameron said.

Its primary use will be during barricades and raids on narcotics dealers, he said, but it can also be used for rescue operations during hurricanes, floods or snowstorms.

“It will probably be used in ways that are surprising,” he said.

“You never know what it prevents,” said Sgt. Richard Russell of the sheriff’s 16-member emergency services team.

The BearCat has two front seats, two jump seats behind them and two benches inside that can each accommodate three officers and their gear. It’s covered in bulletproof armor and glass and its large rubber tires are too thick to be shot out, Russell said. “The overall safety this offers is amazing,” he said.

It also has cameras that can zoom in to see tiny items from hundreds of yards away, and a heat-detection system to help find people who are lost or suspects who are hiding, Cameron said.

The BearCat offers police protection from a gas attack and will soon be outfitted with a gas deployment system above the hatch on the roof, the sheriff said. It can detect radiation in the event of a terrorist attack, or an emergency at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. It has a hydraulic ram system on the front that extends 17 feet and can reach 12 feet vertically. The ram can also be used to puncture a structure to shoot gas in to disable someone who has barricaded themselves.

The vehicle can protect law enforcement officers as well as people in harm’s way during a barricade involving an armed suspect, Cameron said. “When you evacuate people, you take responsibility for them,” the sheriff said, and they can’t be subjected to gunfire.

He recounted a barricade situation last year in Hollywood where homes nearby needed to be evacuated as shots were fired.

There was another instance in which a man took a child hostage in Lexington Park and a nearby day care center had to be evacuated, he said.

Two people were murdered at a convenience store in Mechanicsville 10 years ago, and the shooter went home to barricade himself, Cameron said. That man shot himself in the front yard.

“I hope we never have to use it, quite honestly,” Cameron said of the armored vehicle.

“That would be ideal,” Russell said.

“The greatest danger” to the vehicle is “it will probably sit too much,” Cameron said.

The BearCat has a Ford diesel engine and gets about 8 to 10 miles per gallon, he said. “It drives like a big truck. You just jump in and drive it.”

Some have suggested that the sheriff’s office should show it off at community events, but Cameron said, “I’m not going to parade it around.”

jbabcock@somdnews.com