UKIAH 5/5/2017 — At Tuesday’s meeting the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office requested approval from the board of supervisors to spend $65,540 on equipment for patrol cars and SWAT (special weapons and tactics) gear. The board approved the request unanimously. On May 3, The Mendo Voice stopped by the sheriff’s office to talk with SWAT Commander, Lieutenant Jason Caudillo, about the gear he plans to order for the department. Captain Greg Van Patten spoke about the equipment that the sheriff’s fleet plans to add to five new vehicles that have been ordered from Ford, but which have not yet been built.
The Mendocino County SWAT team pulls its 17 members from several different agencies, mostly from the sheriff’s office. Last May, the police departments of Fort Bragg and Ukiah each contributed two members. In 2013, two paramedics who are also reserve deputies joined the team. SWAT team members train ten to twenty hours a month, depending on their positions. They must pass a fitness test twice a year. Caudillo said members get no extra pay, but that being on the team is an attractive career opportunity.
Caudillo said that much of the gear the team now works with was inspired by the 2011 multi-agency search for Aaron Bassler, who killed Matt Coleman and Jere Melo and hid in the woods for over a month. Before Bassler himself was killed by snipers from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, he opened fire on a separate team of deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
Caudillo identified about $30,000 worth of equipment, including three bullet-proof tactical vests and three night vision monocular devices for new members, and ten hearing protection and radio devices that fit inside team members’ Kevlar helmets. He said the standard bullet-proof vest worn by officers on patrol will stop pistol rounds, but does not provide protection from rifle rounds over .22 caliber. “You almost have to assume the majority of people in the county have some type of firearm that can easily defeat a standard patrol officer’s duty vest,” he said. The tactical vests, which weigh about thirty pounds, have ceramic plates in them that are designed to stop most rifle rounds. In addition to protection for the back and torso, they have lateral plates over the ribcage and bicep protection. Caudillo said that in his observation of autopsies of people killed by gunshots, he has noted that bullets entering the body from the side cause more damage than those that enter straight-on and exit cleanly. Bullets that enter from the side often cause wounds to multiple internal organs as they ricochet around inside the body. Without sufficient protective gear, he said, “I may get two of my closest friends” to accompany him on a mission that involves an active shooter. Each of the three vests he plans to order costs $3,000.
The ten headsets, which are $800 each, consist of headphones that offer hearing protection and radio communication devices that fit inside the officers’ helmets. The headphones offer protection from gunfire and distraction devices, such as “flash-bang grenades.” Caudillo said his unit avoids causing fire and injury by retracting such grenades with a pull cord.
The helmet-mounted monocular night vision device looks like half a set of binoculars or a small telescope. This, Caudillo said, is one of the items especially inspired by the search for Bassler, who moved in the woods around Fort Bragg at night. Because the device is monocular, it only provides night vision to one eye, which does not provide depth perception. “If it were binocular, it wouldn’t mess up the depth perception as badly, but we can’t afford binocular,” Caudillo said. Three of the devices will cost $13,000.
While Caudillo said that the presence of the SWAT team usually causes a suspect to surrender, he addressed a particular tension of his position when he said, “No matter what comes out of my mouth, how reassuring I’m trying to be to these individuals, the fact that I show up looking like this is an issue.”
The remainder of the sheriff’s request is for equipping patrol cars. According to Captain Greg Van Patten, the sheriff’s department made a regular request for five new patrol cars this fiscal year. He ordered those vehicles from Ford in January, but reported that three weeks ago, the company said it had not yet set a date for building the vehicles.
The purchase of the vehicles was approved with this year’s budget, but he said they also require lights, radios, and computers. He said that after 2011, when Ford stopped making the Crown Victoria sedan, which was popular among law enforcement agencies, the sheriff’s department had to buy new equipment for each new replacement vehicle, instead of reusing gear that was otherwise still serviceable. While the lifespan of a patrol car, which ideally should not have more than 100,000 miles on it, is three or four years, the light bar can often last up to nine years.
Van Patten estimated that each new vehicle, including the additional gear and the labor of installing it, costs between $55,000 and $65,000. “It’s an expensive piece of equipment,” he noted.
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