Police armored vehicles have long history

After the civil unrest of the late 1960s, Kansas City police acquired an armored military surplus vehicle that dated to World War II. The vehicle, which officers used to save a wounded comrade's life 1971, is part of the long history of armored vehicle use by Kansas City area law enforcement agencies, dating from the 1930s through today. Sgt. Tony Sanders heads the Kansas City Police Historical Society, which now owns the vehicle.
After the civil unrest of the late 1960s, Kansas City police acquired an armored military surplus vehicle that dated to World War II. The vehicle, which officers used to save a wounded comrade's life 1971, is part of the long history of armored vehicle use by Kansas City area law enforcement agencies, dating from the 1930s through today. Sgt. Tony Sanders heads the Kansas City Police Historical Society, which now owns the vehicle. The Kansas City Star

A man standing on the roof of a house was threatening to jump.

He displayed a rope in a noose around his neck and attached to a tree. He also appeared to be armed.

Kansas City police recently encountered that delicate situation. In response, the department dispatched an armor-plated, multiton emergency response vehicle.

Since the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., much has been made of military-grade gear — including armored vehicles — that police departments sometimes use in certain scenarios. In a June report, the American Civil Liberties Union maintained that the widespread acquisition of military weapons, vehicles and equipment by local law enforcement agencies has resulted in a far more militaristic approach to everyday police work, such as serving warrants.

Kansas City area law enforcement officials, however, are quick to defend their use of armored vehicles, which have been in service in Kansas City for at least 80 years.

Kansas City police officers use two armored vehicles that let them get closer to volatile situations, like the situation involving the man on the roof.

“The vehicles allow us to get closer to threats and still have a relative feeling of safety,” said Kansas City police spokesman Capt. Tye Grant.

Through a federal grant program following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Mid-America Regional Council acquired six Lenco armored vehicles. They’re used by police departments in Kansas City; Kansas City, Kan.; Overland Park; Independence; and Leavenworth.

“Unfortunately, in today’s climate, police departments are often outgunned and require more sophisticated equipment to keep the public and ourselves safe,” said Emmett Lockridge of the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office recently acquired a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, which had been used in Afghanistan. The office acquired the vehicle free through a program in which military ordnance is transferred to state or local law enforcement agencies.

Other departments use vehicles from more distant conflicts. The Lenexa Police Department today uses a track-driven vehicle built during the Vietnam War.

Rough start

Kansas City’s armored car era had a clumsy beginning.

In July 1933, several Jackson County sheriff’s deputies maneuvered an armored car in front of a tourist cabin south of Platte City.

Platte County lawmen had requested the car. But the five members of the Barrow Gang declined commands to surrender. Instead, they opened fire. One bullet crashed through the car’s allegedly bulletproof windshield and apparently jammed one of the machine guns held by a deputy. Another deputy suffered bullet wounds in both legs. The deputies backed the car away from the cabin.

The Barrow Gang escaped that night, although several members soon would come to grief.

But the Jackson County armored car at least saw action. About a month earlier, a Kansas City police armored car had proved irrelevant during one of the city’s most infamous shootouts.

On June 17, 1933, two Kansas City detectives reported to downtown police headquarters to pick up the department’s “muscle car,” an armor-plated vehicle known as the Hot Shot. The detectives had been assigned to provide extra security for federal agents transporting criminal Frank “Jelly” Nash from Arkansas to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth.

They opened the Hot Shot that morning expecting to find the machine gun that it routinely carried.

It was missing.

“That meant they were just two more flatfoots with pistols,” said Robert Unger, author of “Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.”

Packing far less firepower than they had anticipated, the detectives parked the Hot Shot near one of Union Station’s front entrances and joined other lawmen escorting Nash from a train to the south parking lot. They would die there, along with a federal agent, an Oklahoma police chief and Nash.

The Kansas City Hot Shot presumably was out of service by 1970.

That’s when the Kansas City Police Department, following the riots of 1968, became one of the first in the country to acquire an Army armored utility car used during World War II. Police mechanics began customizing it with a loudspeaker, headlights and a battering ram mounted on its snout.

The car still was in the shop when three officers responding to a December 1971 domestic disturbance were shot and injured by a gunman who had barricaded himself in a residence.

Officers maneuvered the car next to one injured officer while colleagues pulled him inside to safety. Officers then used the car’s battering ram to push down one of the residence’s walls.

The gunman soon surrendered.

Today the vehicle, owned by the Kansas City Police Historical Society, is preserved in a North Kansas City storage facility.

The vehicle was effective in is time, said Sgt. Tony Sanders, historical society president. “Officers used it the same way they use the modern vehicles today, in rescue situations.”

Eventually technology rendered the car obsolete, said Sanders.

The Lenexa Police Department, however, still uses the track-driven vehicle, manufactured during the Vietnam War, that it acquired from the federal government in 1999.

“We are very selective about what we use it for,” said Lenexa police Capt. Karl Burris.

In September 2011, Lenexa officers, supporting Kansas City, Kan., police, responded to an apartment where a shooting suspect had barricaded himself in with children. Lenexa officers used the vehicle’s battering ram to remove a sleeper sofa that had been placed behind the residence’s door. That helped officers gain access to the apartment, remove the children and finally take the man into custody.

Although land mines do not constitute much of a danger in Clay County, that doesn’t mean that the Clay County Sheriff’s Office can’t put its recently acquired mine resistant ambush protected vehicle to use when civilians are put at risk, said Capt. Matt Hunter. It could have been used this May, he said, when an unarmed masked man climbed onto the roof of a Northland middle school.

North Kansas City school district officials used school buses to transfer students to a nearby high school

“We could have backed the vehicle up to the school and evacuated students, and the worry of a bullet penetrating that vehicle would have been virtually nonexistent,” Hunter said.

Fleet of armor

Since 1997, more than $4.3 billion worth of surplus military equipment has been transferred to local and state law enforcement agencies, according to the recent ACLU report.

“We believe this makes our communities less safe and jeopardizes individual liberties,” said Holly Weatherford, advocacy director with the ACLU of Kansas.

“Just like across the country, local law enforcement agencies in Kansas and Missouri have been acquiring weapons that have been used in overseas war zones,” Weatherford said.

“But our neighborhhroods are not war zones, and our neighbors should not be treated like wartime enemies.”

But police are well-trained in using that hardware, said Marlene Nagel, Mid-America Regional Council community development director. Although MARC acquired the six Lenco armored vehicles 10 years ago, area police agencies using them continue to train.

That likely will pay dividends if and when officers from participating law enforcement agencies work together in a future emergency, Nagel said.

“They will have that benefit of having similar equipment and similar training,” she said.

Grant of the Kansas City police is convinced of their value and cites the recent scenario of the man on the roof.

Members of a tactical response team used the armored vehicle to get close to the man. Then officers trained in such scenarios were able to persuade him to remove the noose from his neck, Grant said.

Then, during a moment when the man was distracted, officers used a long pole to move the rope from the man’s reach.

Eventually officers were able to coax him off the roof and then collect what they thought had been his deadly firearm. But none of that could have been possible, he added, without the armored vehicle the officers used to get close to him while still protecting themselves.

“The man’s gun turned out to be a BB gun,” said Grant. “But we didn’t know that until afterward.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to