Local

Tiny department has big help

Above, Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith, left, and Lt. Robert Cauthen sit in the department's Humvee. Below, Smith and Cauthen tinker with new blue lights on the military vehicle, which houses crime scene equipment.
Above, Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith, left, and Lt. Robert Cauthen sit in the department's Humvee. Below, Smith and Cauthen tinker with new blue lights on the military vehicle, which houses crime scene equipment.

FORT LAWN -- If Fort Lawn is like Mayberry -- and the local cops say it is -- then Andy and Barney are riding around in a Humvee.

Yes, as in the same type of durable utility vehicle that soldiers are driving over the sands of Iraq.

The department -- with just four full-time officers -- acquired the four-wheel drive beast last year though a federal program that helps state and local authorities obtain used military equipment at no cost. They've been gradually fixing it up, recently adding blue lights from a patrol car.

But why would a department that serves about 850 people need a vehicle with bulletproof doors?

Fort Lawn Police Chief Richard Smith and Lt. Robert Cauthen say the Humvee serves as a crime scene vehicle and a place to store their gloves, rape kits, cotton swabs and other "CSI"-esque gear instead of spreading the equipment among patrol cars.

"It's just handy to have all this stuff accessible to you," Cauthen said.

Another asset of having such a powerful vehicle is being able to get to rural sites where patrol cars can't venture. During the sleet last winter, Smith took two elderly women to run errands. A logging company recently asked him to keep an eye on some equipment.

"You can't take a Crown Vic out there," Smith said.

Cauthen, who spends his time out of a uniform fixing tractors and other farm equipment, is the primary mechanic to the off-road ogre.

"I just love these vehicles," he said.

Three years ago, Cauthen began the process of finding a Humvee. In June 2006, he learned Charleston County Sheriff's Office had some old Humvees the agency wasn't using.

Cauthen drove to the Lowcountry and found the three bulky vehicles in a field. Not one would start.

So, locally owned Vogel's Trucking offered to haul the trio back on a flatbed trailer. The company did it for free.

Cauthen and the other officers tinkered with the Humvees. The one in the best shape cranked up after getting some new batteries. The officers used parts from the other vehicles -- a door here, a windshield there -- until they had a sturdy combination.

A local guy who paints cars handled the color scheme of the vehicle. He also didn't charge.

In Fort Lawn -- a town where people who need help often call officers' cell phones instead of 911 -- folks are willing to help the cops.

"If something's needed here, all we have to do is ask," Cauthen said. "They just step up."

With its white paint, green trim and gargantuan frame, the Humvee gets noticed around town. It's a great ice breaker at community events where wide-eyed kids poke around its roomy interior.

But the Humvee is not a show toy.

Cauthen went through a forensic apprenticeship program with the State Law Enforcement Division. Everything inside the vehicle is carefully boxed, a technique he learned from his training with the state. Recently, he's taken the Humvee to burglary cases. He hopes to get a generator to power large lights at night.

Perhaps the best part of the whole Humvee experience is that it hasn't cost taxpayers a cent, Smith said.

The vehicle has been a group project, from the donated trucking and paint work to the police officers picking up a wrench on their time off.

Everyone's excited when the military machine comes to Mayberry.

"A lot of people have hobbies," Smith said. "Our hobby is policing."

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