Authorities responding in Orlando to what became the worst mass shooting in U.S. history used military-style equipment and weapons and an armored tactical vehicle, reframing the debate about what police should have in their arsenal.
The issue was raised often as police responded to unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and in Baltimore last year. Most often, the questions centered on whether police erred by responding with too much force or equipment that seemed heavy-handed and whether the Pentagon should continue a program that sends excess gear and weapons free to local police departments that ask for them.
Circumstances were different Sunday. It was not immediately clear whether Orlando police used any equipment provided by the Pentagon in responding to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, but photographs taken at the scene show police wearing far more armor than is common on many foot patrols by U.S. troops in a war zone, underscoring the threat they thought they could face.
One image distributed by the Associated Press depicts a SWAT team member with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department wearing armor over an olive-green suit that includes a throat protector, a groin protector that hangs below his armored vest and deltoid armor that covers his shoulders. He’s armed with a black submachine gun known as a UMP, short for Universal Machine Pistol. It’s favored by both SWAT units and U.S. Special Operations troops in raids because it is easier to aim in close quarters than a rifle. A black, tactical knife is strapped to his left shoulder.
Another AP image shows SWAT team members from outside the club. They’re wearing similar armor, along with black tactical boots and carrying submachine guns and handguns, which are strapped to holsters on their right sides.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said at a news conference Sunday that 11 Orlando police officers and three deputy sheriffs exchanged gunfire with the shooter while attempting to stop him. One of the officers was hit with a bullet in a helmet made of Kevlar, a synthetic fiber that is often used in body armor. The Orlando Police Department distributed a photograph of a damaged olive-green helmet on Twitter and said that it saved the officer’s life.
“It’s heroic, the individuals that went into the building knowing that there was an active shooter,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). “We should be very grateful that there were individuals who were willing to risk their lives to save other lives, and they clearly saved other lives.”
Police said the attack at Pulse, a popular gay club, began about 2 a.m. and that the shooter — identified as Omar Mateen, 29 — took hostages for about three hours. The rifle he was carrying typically holds about 30 rounds at a time in a magazine, meaning he had to reload numerous times to inflict that amount of violence. Authorities said 50 people, including Mateen, were killed and at least 53 more were injured in the attack.
Mina said that police rammed the outside wall of the club about 5 a.m. with an armored BearCat vehicle and set off a “controlled detonation” to distract the attacker. BearCat stands for “Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck,” and is the best-selling vehicle made by Lenco, an armored-vehicle maker with headquarters in Pittsfield, Mass. The company has supplied vehicles to the U.S. military and police departments abroad and makes a variant of a mine-resistant vehicle commonly known as the MRAP.
Some observers on social media noted on Sunday the utility of having tactical equipment and vehicles in a police arsenal. The Obama administration introduced new restrictions to the Pentagon’s excess-property program last year, saying new written justifications would be needed to transfer items on a “controlled” equipment list that included wheeled tactical vehicles, riot gear and a variety of firearms.
— Darkblue714 (@darkblue714) June 12, 2016
The SWAT in Orlando used a 'Bearcat' armored vehicle to help stop gunman threat. I don't wanna hear about police militarization ever again
— Tyler (@TylerASU13) June 12, 2016
Kevlar helmet saved officers life in Orlando.. But, some say police are too militarized… Smh pic.twitter.com/xBjbfHOTua
— Aaron Evans (@AaronEvans07) June 12, 2016
What was all that about militarized police? This is the threat we face now. God bless you all. RIP victims. https://t.co/6K7YPzAXKb
— Big City Beat Cop (@BigCityBeatCop) June 12, 2016
Mina has said that he was against obtaining old U.S. military vehicles for his department, citing the maintenance they require. He said two years ago that he wanted a new, $230,000 BearCat to replace an aging tactical vehicle in his department.
“It does look militaristic, but it’s designed for law enforcement,” Mina said in 2014, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “We don’t use these vehicles for riots or any type of crowd control.”
On Monday, Mina said Mateen was holed up in a bathroom with at least four hostages after his initial attack and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group during a 911 call made at that time. At some point, Mateen mentioned having some form of explosives, prompting authorities to storm the club. Some people escaped through the hole whole in the wall, and Mateen opened fire.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.
This story was originally published Sunday evening at 6:46 p.m. and republished Monday morning with additional details.
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