Jefferson County sheriff candidates say department’s armored truck to be used only in “extreme” circumstances

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s new MRAP after a paint job last fall. The protests in Ferguson, Mo., have prompted debate on the use of police force. Amanda Morrison / NNY Business

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s new MRAP after a paint job last fall. The protests in Ferguson, Mo., have prompted debate on the use of police force. Amanda Morrison / NNY Business

What do Watertown, N.Y.; Watertown, Conn., and Watertown, Wis., have in common?

Law enforcement agencies in or near all three cities have large armored vehicles given to them by the same federal government program receiving renewed attention as an indirect result of protests over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Law enforcement officials in that city, which has a population of roughly 21,000, have been criticized for using military-style equipment and tactics to dispel the protestors, a strategy some observers have said has only exacerbated the situation.

Last September, Jefferson County acquired a $600,000, 21-ton, 2008 International MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle through the 1033 program, which authorizes the transfer of excess Department of Defense property to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for use in counter-drug and counterterrorism activities.

The vehicle was the subject of some controversy in the weeks following the news that it had been acquired, with some Jefferson County legislators calling it “excessive.”

But department personnel, including deputies from the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, persuaded some undecided legislators and the board voted to accept the vehicle by an 8-6 vote.

Whoever wins this fall’s race for Jefferson County sheriff will inherit the vehicle, which has been painted black and now bears the symbol of the department. It sits in the back lot of the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, where it reportedly has not moved since its acquisition, save for a lone maintenance trip.

Democrats Colleen M. O’Neill, a retired state police senior investigator, and Paul W. Trudeau, Jefferson County undersheriff, are running against each other for the Democratic nomination.

The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Republican John R. Bocciolatt, a Watertown native and retired detective sergeant with the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau, in the general election.

All three candidates for Jefferson County sheriff said Friday that they would use the vehicle only in “extreme” circumstances and that they would likely never use the MRAP in a situation involving protesters or public demonstrations.

“I don’t see there’s an application for an MRAP in a riotous situation,” Mr. Bocciolatt said. “In my mind’s eye, I don’t see what it is.”

Mr. Bocciolatt said that when he would respond to protests or demonstrations with other officers in Portland, they did not use armored vehicles, even though they had them at their disposal.

“I envision the MRAP being used as a tool to be used in hostage takeovers or barricaded individual situations to transport the SERT team into the scene where they can get in safely,” Mr. Bocciolatt said.

“Obviously, there’s a place and time when military-style weapons and vehicles should be used, but I would consider those extreme situations,” Ms. O’Neill said. “The last thing you want to do is make the situation worse.”

Ms. O’Neill said that if the vehicle would be used, it would be only with the explicit authorization of the sheriff.

“Whatever the consequences are, good or bad, it’s the burden of the sheriff to make those decisions and live with the consequences,” she said.

“The bottom line is: you weigh your options and make sure the outcome is better than the situation is currently,” Ms. O’Neill said.

Mr. Trudeau said the county’s MRAP has not been used at all yet, though the department has used a similar vehicle owned by Onondaga County to respond to situations in the past, including a six-hour standoff in Rodman in 2011 and a four-hour standoff in Champion in 2012.

“It’s really hard to predict when you would use it, but it would only be in extreme circumstances,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The undersheriff said that he would expect his deputies to respond to public demonstrations or protests with professionalism.

“The Sheriff’s Department is a very professional department. I don’t expect the department to act as anything other than professional. I expect our deputies to treat people in a very professional manner,” Mr. Trudeau said.

According to the Town Times of Watertown, Conn., the Watertown Police Department received a 66,700-pound, $733,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle in April through the 1033 program, which has provided more than $2.6 billion worth of DOD property to law enforcement agencies in all 50 states, according to the website of the Defense Logistics Agency.

The Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, which is about 20 minutes from Watertown, Wis., received an MRAP through the 1033 program in July, according to the Watertown Daily Times.

Watertown, a city of just under 24,000, straddles the line between Dodge and Jefferson counties in the southeast corner of the state.

By Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer