ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A highly modified, heavily armored bulldozer known as The Rook has saved countless lives.
Orange County Sheriff's Office high-risk incident commander Capt. Todd Payne is sure of it.
"It's proven itself in numerous instances even within this past year, several times when we've had to deal with individuals who remain in the house and refused to come out," Payne said.
Like a bulldozer, The Rook has movable arms that can lift anything that is attached to the arms.
The Orange County Sheriff's Office, which purchased The Rook in 2018 from Ring Power for $240,000, most commonly uses an armor-encased platform attached to the arms.
The operator of The Rook, sitting in a bullet-proof climate-controlled cabin, can raise the platform as high as 11 feet in the air.
That allows the operator to safely deliver deputies on top of a roof, to a second-story landing, or even a window, without exposing the deputies to harm.
Deputies stand on the platform protected by a thick steel wall.
They can look through the bullet-proof glass and even fire through rifle ports. Cameras relay live streaming video via Bluetooth to incident commanders watching from afar.
"It's to protect the people involved in the situation," Payne said.
Orlando Police Officer Kevin Valencia was shot last year at an Orlando apartment complex when the suicidal suspect fired through the second-story apartment door.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team brought The Rook to the complex when the suspect barricaded himself inside the apartment with four children.
“He had already fired on law enforcement, unfortunately, and we knew that he was still in there and there were children in there and we know he was still a danger,” Payne said.
The SWAT team used The Rook to peer into the second story windows with its nine infrared cameras. The machine smashed the windows and fired tear gas into the apartment.
Unfortunately, by that time the suspect had already taken his own life and the lives of the four children.
But Payne said The Rook has protected and rescued hostages caught up in standoffs.
“We’ve used it this year four times already, situations involving a bank robber and a carjacker,” Payne said. “It’s a game changer. In 20 years of SWAT experience, this is one of the few products that have come out that actually changes our tactics for the positive. It works to protect our operators and protect our community. We can do hostage rescues with this. It gets people behind cover safely and quickly.”
The platform also doubles as a mobile shield that can be placed in an area where there is no cover, such as an open field.
“So if we’re in a remote location and there’s not any protection for the team, this can be set out in the open, this will provide the protection and cover the team members will need,” Payne said.
The Rook is so intimidating that often suspects will give up just upon seeing it.
"Often times we use this to breach that front door," Payne said. "Even just doing that has positive results because they see this and realize that door is no longer there and we could come in anytime. They then come out and surrender to us peacefully."
The operator of The Rook can switch out attachments in minutes without leaving the cabin.
The SWAT team uses a battering ram to punch through walls and even lift off roofs.
In April, the Sheriff’s Office used the ram to smash a hole in the attic of a home in Lake Mann because they believed two men with guns were hiding out in the attic.
The Sheriff’s Office uses another attachment -- a claw-like grabbing tool with long metal teeth -- to remove debris after a hurricane.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office shares The Rook with law enforcement agencies south and east of Orange County. Only Marion and Lake counties have their own Rooks.
Payne said The Rook is not excessive for a local law enforcement agency.
“It’s not armed, it’s armored. It’s only a transport vehicle that allows us to access areas in a safe manner,” Payne said. “In the situations we deal with, as the SWAT, as a commander, it’s my responsibility to ensure the safety of my operators and my team and also the high priority is the safety of those that we’re coming to help. This gets us there. It’s a tool. Like anything else, it’s to protect the people involved in the situation.”