Law enforcement agencies in the broad Big Horn Basin and the state's two most populous counties have in the past year acquired four large military surplus armored vehicles originally meant to fend off improvised mines and rocket attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Police in Cheyenne, the state capital, just added a second such vehicle, known as an MRAP, to their fleet.

The hulking vehicles are hard to miss. The most common version in the state stands 10 feet tall, weighs between 14 and 24 tons depending on the configuration, rolls on six run-flat tires and carries up to eight people. 

Law enforcement agencies commonly pick up free military surplus gear to complement their arsenals and supplies. But the MRAPs, an acronym for the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, are a much more visible and imposing sign of such transfers, coordinated through a state office.

Despite concerns about the growing militarization of police, law enforcement representatives in Wyoming say they consider the large armored vehicles a useful, low-cost tool for rescues and responses to mass shootings, particularly with large-caliber weaponry.

In those terms, justifying the MRAPs is simple.

“It’s our job to save lives and to protect the people of the county,” said Lt. Mark Sellers, of the Natrona County Sheriff's Office. “This is a piece of equipment to save lives and help people.”

The cost

Separate MRAPs stand ready for a three-county tactical team in the Big Horn Basin, the Natrona County Sheriff's Office and the Cheyenne Police Department.

The Cheyenne Police Department was picking up a second, smaller MRAP from a military base in Colorado on Friday, said Gayleen Wyant, Wyoming coordinator for surplus property, who also oversees the distribution program for the MRAPs and other military surplus.

The military gives MRAPs to law enforcement agencies free of charge, but the armored vehicles still cost money.

The Natrona County Sheriff's Office's vehicle, a BAE Caiman 6x6 standing 10 feet, 4 inches tall, is brand new, save for the vehicle’s passenger compartment, which was used in military actions in the Middle East.

Shane Wirth, a mechanic for the sheriff's office, and Sgt. John Harlin drove the vehicle back from Sealy, Texas, at the end of May. With a 74-gallon fuel tank, the MRAP could cost almost $300 to fill at current diesel prices.

Natrona County Sheriff Gus Holbrook said the trip to pick up the MRAP in Texas cost $2,500, the extent of the expenses on the vehicle so far.

“Those costs were minimal given the fact that the engine, transmission and rest of the drive train had zero miles on them, the tires were brand new and the metal is brand new, with the exception of the passenger compartment, so the upkeep was minimal,” Harlin said.

The retail price of the vehicle is $733,000, Holbrook said. The sheriff’s office also received a complete set of spare tires for the MRAP, priced at $2,500 each.

Still, the vehicles are a bargain compared with the cost of buying similar vehicles outright. Long, of the Cheyenne Police Department, said his agency had been considering buying a vehicle more heavily armored than an older armored truck the department has.

The agency was eying a Lenco BearCat at a cost of about $400,000, but when the free MRAPs became available, the cost comparison made the decision easy.

"That would have to come out of the local taxpayer's pocket," he said of the BearCat's cost.

The concerns

As military-grade equipment, the MRAPs are a significant upgrade to each of the law enforcement agencies' armored vehicle capability. But criminologists, journalists and civil libertarians have, with growing concern, tracked the rising use of military equipment and tactics by law enforcement agencies.

Radley Balko, an investigative journalist who has chronicled the rise of police militarization, has dubbed the trend "the rise of the warrior cop," including in his 2013 book of the same name.

He's tracked the the explosive growth in the creation and use of SWAT teams and the transfer of military weapons and gear, tactics and ideology among law enforcement agencies. 

"The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop — armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties," Balko wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay introducing his book.

Such "warrior cops" might still seem alien to many in Wyoming, where many know their sheriff or police chief on a first-name basis. Law enforcement agencies in the state certainly haven't had to deal with rocket-propelled grenade ambushes or attacks from roadside bombs.

Wyoming actually has among the lowest rates of violent crime per capita of U.S. states. 

But Wyoming law enforcement agents do operate in a state packing heat. Wyoming has the highest rate of gun ownership in the U.S. More than half of state residents have said they own firearms, and Wyoming was fourth in the nation last year for the number of gun background checks run per capita.

The winding down of U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan opened a supply of MRAPs to law enforcement agencies around the country. Thousands were made available, many fresh from the factory, and coordinators in each state worked to qualify agencies and schedule them to receive an MRAP of their own. The wait can stretch months.

"I've been trying to get (armored personnel carriers) covered across the whole state so we have them in place in the event they need them," said Wyant, the Wyoming surplus coordinator.

Holbrook is glad to add the vehicle to Natrona County's arsenal, but he's clear about his philosophy regarding it's use: “I hope we never have to use that vehicle."

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He said he has no plans to get a second MRAP.

The uses

Sure, the MRAPs were meant for war zones, not Wyoming. But law enforcement agencies in the state that have or want one of the armored vehicles are quick to cite possible uses for them, based on previous incidents.

Emergency rescuers battling flash floods on Casper Mountain last summer were left wishing they’d had a better way to rescue people stranded on Hat Six Road, who had to wait until flood waters went down to be reached since rescuers didn’t have a vehicle that could tread the high waters. Now they do.

“That’s what we were looking for, and that’s what we lacked to be able to rescue those people and get them out of there,” Harlin said. “The ballistic protection is kind of an afterthought when we’re talking about that vehicle.”

Yet the ballistic protection is an important feature for the agencies. In the Big Horn Basin, Washakie County Sheriff Steve Rakness mentioned a 1996 shooting in adjacent Big Horn County as the type of situation in which the MRAP would carry members of the basin's tactical team.

Unlike the Cheyenne Police Department's older armored vehicle, the MRAP can withstand rifle rounds on its way to rescue downed officers in case of a school shooting or in an exchange of gunfire with a barricaded and heavily armed suspect, Long said.

The agencies see the vehicles as filling the gap they've had in response vehicles that can safely navigate a large-caliber firefight.

“With what’s going on around the nation between the school shootings, because they happen quite regularly, the shootings at the malls, we didn’t have any way to go rescue anybody who would be trying to escape an active shooter,” said Holbrook.

Long, the Cheyenne police spokesman, said concerns about the militarization of police are too focused on equipment and not on the less-militarization policing strategies agencies pursue. 

Long said to compare Cheyenne's community policing strategy against other, unidentified police departments that are less focused on service and community involvement. He said he's received zero calls from anyone concerned about the police department's new MRAP.

"Some people look at the equipment we use to do that job," he said. But what's more important is "how we're actually interacting with the community and our service to the community."

But there will be uses for the MRAPs beyond rescues and shootings, anywhere law enforcement agencies find the need for what is essentially a rolling, bulletproof cocoon. 

“We’re still finding out all the ways that we may be able to use it,” Holbrook said.

Star-Tribune staff writer Lillian Schrock contributed to this article.

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Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or jeremy.fugleberg@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter:@jayfug.