Sheriff Leon Lott: County's military-grade equipment mostly for PR

This military-grade vehicle is owned by the Richland County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Leon Lott, however, says it's mostly used for PR.
This military-grade vehicle is owned by the Richland County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Leon Lott, however, says it's mostly used for PR.

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The situation in Missouri is raising questions about the use of assault weapons and armored vehicles by law enforcement. Those questions have been posed before here in Richland County.

Sheriff Leon Lott appeared before the Columbia Rotary Club on Monday to answer plenty of those questions.

For example, the sheriff's department has its own mine-resistant, ambush protected, or M-RAP, called "Mojo."

It's an intimidating piece of military-grade equipment, but it's worth its weight in armor when it comes to creating good community relations, according to Lott.

"If the community doesn't trust us, then we're not doing our jobs," said Lott. "And it's not just about locking people up."

Lott called in the M-RAP and members of his Special Response Team to demonstrate some of the crime-fighting tools at his disposal. Lott says the former military vehicles, including a tank called the "Peacemaker," are used mostly for PR purposes.

"I have every piece of equipment there is," said Lott. "And we've had them for years. And you probably see them out every weekend. You go to any church, festival, community group, school, you name it. The number one requested piece of equipment that people want to see is our tank and our M-RAP. They want to see this stuff. We show it, we take it out. We want people to see it. Why? For one we want the bad guys to know that we got it. Maybe that will scare them off."

Lott says he disagrees with many of the tactics and actions taken so far by law enforcement in Ferguson. He says for instance, police officers should not be aiming weapons at unarmed protesters.

"I'm going to go back to something my daddy taught me many years ago when he first taught me about guns: You don't point a gun at somebody unless you're going to use it," said Lott.

Lott says some who've mingled with the protest crowds share blame for escalating tensions and violence.

"Nothing excuses those people who are looting and burning and stealing," said Lott. "There's no excuse for that. But that's different than the protests that they're doing. Those are people that are criminals and they should be dealt with. But the citizens have a right to know. We shouldn't keep secrets from them."

Lott says he started moving toward acquiring military vehicles after a 13-hour standoff between state and local officers and a father and son more than a decade ago in Abbeville.

That incident which began with a right of way dispute left two officers dead.

Lott says it took hours for authorities to come up with a way to approach the home of Arthur Bixby because they did not have a vehicle equipped for the task.

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved.