Bellingham college students outfit Whatcom County sheriff’s mine-resistant truck

Students at Bellingham Technical College were handed one of the more unusual, hands-on assignments so far this school year: Outfit the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office’s new 18-ton, mine-resistant truck.

Welding students at the college spent last week bolting on seats and installing lights on a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle that came to the sheriff’s office earlier this year from a military base in Texas. Those extra seats could be for civilians evacuated from a school shooting, or from a natural disaster, said Whatcom County Undersheriff Jeff Parks.

This is the third, and most heavy-duty, armored vehicle on loan to the sheriff’s office. It’s a massive, six-by-six-wheel, snowplow-sized behemoth that fits 10 passengers.

“We probably would have liked to have something a little smaller, but it’s hard to be choosy when you get it free,” Parks said.

A second smaller, older armored truck — called an LAV, short for light-armored vehicle — could be returned to the U.S. military if the new MRAP makes it redundant. A third, even lighter-armored car gets more routine use because it drives almost like a pickup.

Local taxpayer money covered the MRAP’s several thousand dollars in shipping and handling costs. Otherwise the vehicle’s $400,000-plus price tag was covered by federal tax money, and gifted to Whatcom County through the 1033 Federal Surplus Program. That Department of Defense program has been especially controversial this year, viewed by its critics as an unnerving sign of increased militarization by local police, in the aftermath of heavily armed police responses to protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Leadership at the sheriff’s office says the military look of the vehicle might seem imposing, but the vehicles are like an extra layer of body armor on high-risk calls: standoffs, shootings, and dangerous warrant services. The armored vehicles are used a few times a year — Parks didn’t have an exact count, off-hand — by the sheriff’s SWAT team. Its high clearance could be extremely useful, Parks said, in the event of another massive flood in Whatcom County.

“If we didn’t have access to these through the surplus program, we would have to pool our funds,” Parks said. “We would basically have to go out and spend $200,000 to get a civilian version.”