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'The world is changing'

Children had the chance to explore the inside of the BearCat and look at the cameras inside as well as peek out the top. (Photo by Kit Murray)

Lake City police officer Shawn Schneider lost his life in 2011 during a response to a domestic dispute involving a handgun. He was helping a 17-year-old girl to safety when her former boyfriend, 25-year-old Alan Sylte, shot the officer in the head.

The Goodhue County Sheriff's Office deployed its armored vehicle, the Peacekeeper, to what turned into an hours-long standoff following the shooting. The 30-year-old vehicle broke down on the way to the scene.

"The wheels literally disintegrated on the vehicle as we were trying to drive it to Lake City," Sheriff Scott McNurlin recalled. "It was so old and it wasn't really built for traveling at a fast pace, it wasn't built to go here to there. By the time we got down there, it was literally running on the cords of the tire to the point where it was kind of unsafe."

Without an armored vehicle, officers at the scene risked their lives extracting Schneider from the scene. He died from his injuries 10 days later.

Today, the tactical team with Goodhue County Sheriff's Office and Red Wing Police Department approach dangerous situations with state-of-the-art equipment thanks to help from the Department of Homeland Security.

The grant, which county commissioners accepted in August, helped purchase a BearCat armored vehicle. In an agreement with Department of Homeland Security, the county would match $74,258 with the city of Red Wing contributing $11,159.

Approval of the grant nearly failed earlier as Commissioner Ron Allen maintained opposition to the agreement. Although cost was among the factors that originally discouraged Allen from supporting the purchase, a conversation with his son, a federal agent with the Border Patrol, prompted a change of heart.

"I think my initial concern was the cost of it. We talk about protecting our police officers, and this is a prime example of something you have to vote for in order to do it," he said. "I didn't want to look like we were turning our police force into a military unit, but with all the stuff that's happened since then with police being targeted, they need that vehicle."

The customized vehicle suits a variety of the area's emergency response needs.

"It gives us a multidimensional tool we can use and operate safely in the most hostile environments," McNurlin said. "So, we know the officers inside it are safe from the environment. That's the purpose of it."

The vehicle's armor-plated body and windows protect its passengers from .50 caliber gun fire, while its durable tires allow for agile navigation in wooded areas and fields as well as rescues in heavy snowfall. A ram on the vehicle's front allows officers to break down doors or telescope cameras in hostile situations.

"A lot of people would like to think that this is a tool that's not necessary in Red Wing, and we'd all like to believe that," McNurlin said. "Unfortunately, the world is changing and you never know where something dramatic is going to happen."

The vehicle is also equipped to address situations at the Prairie Island nuclear plant, for which Goodhue County Sheriff's Office is the primary responder. A self-contained breathing system in the vehicle supplies oxygen to officers and people being evacuated from areas affected by contamination. A built-in dosimeter can detect levels of radiation in the air.

Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman said the vehicle could help thwart threats to the area's economic infrastructure, including the nuclear plant, U.S. Lock & Dam No. 3 and the riverfront.

"We have to consider that — is it very remote? Yes, it is. But can we afford to have it affect us and fail to respond properly? I don't think we can," he said. "So, with that responsibility this is another tool that helps us keep Red Wing safe and the economic impact of our region moving."

Although the vehicle may look intimidating, McNurlin emphasized it is a "purely defensive" tool rather than an "offensive weapon."

"The vehicle itself doesn't have any missiles or machine guns mounted," he said. "It's intended to protect our police officers in very dangerous environments. I think we're blessed to have gotten this grant to get this."

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