FARGO — In chess, a rook is a fast-moving fortress that can provide a player with a powerful advantage in the right situation.
Recently, the Fargo Police Department was given the OK to buy a real-world armored vehicle called a ROOK that is designed to give authorities, such as local SWAT officers and other first responders, a tactical advantage in the tough situations they face.
The $377,000 acquisition, which is being made with the help of grant funds from the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, includes a ROOK tactical vehicle and a trailer.
The vehicle, which resembles an armored skid-steer loader and is built from a Caterpillar chassis, also comes with a number of attachments, including an armored platform that allows the ROOK to lift several officers into the air high enough to access a second-story window of a building.
Another attachment allows the vehicle to be used as a giant battering ram.
Materials included in the information packet for the Fargo City Commission meeting on Oct. 7, when the purchase was authorized, state that Fargo police and the Red River Valley SWAT team wanted the vehicle as a way to keep officers safe when responding to "critical incidents," such as armed standoffs.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have purchased ROOKs and according to reports published online, one was used by authorities in San Bernardino, Calif., in connection with a December 2015 terrorist attack that led to the deaths of 14 people.
The suspects in that case were a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, and the pair were ultimately killed in a shootout with authorities, who used a ROOK as part of the police operation.
The materials presented to the Fargo City Commission supporting the need for the purchase included this: "Simply stated, the ROOK capabilities permit the operator to safely approach, rescue, evacuate citizens and officers, and maneuver and work safely within the inner perimeter of a scene."
And as long as communities develop clear policies on when such vehicles are to be used and how, they work well for the intended purpose, according to Ben Tisa, a retired FBI employee who now works as a special operations instructor and expert witness in California.
He said vehicles like the ROOK can achieve rescues or medical evacuations that would be impossible using regular police or ambulance vehicles.
"They're pretty common throughout here," he added, referring to California.
Tisa acknowledged that bringing an armored vehicle to a scene could serve to heighten tensions in a situation, adding that is why having clear policies on how and when to use them should be established by agencies adopting such equipment.
He said they can actually be useful in getting negotiators closer to a suspect to enhance communication, and in some places, police use them to bring food and other items to a suspect.
As commonplace as armored vehicles like the ROOK have become, not everyone is convinced of their effectiveness in enhancing the safety of officers and citizens.
Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, has published research on the use of such equipment by law enforcement agencies.
A summary of one of Mummolo's studies published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that the costs and benefits of "militarized" policing remain unclear due to data limitations.
The summary adds, however, that based on an array of data sources and original experiments it can be shown that SWAT teams are more often deployed in communities of color and — contrary to the claims of police administrators — they provide no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction.
In addition, the study states that experiments suggest that seeing militarized police in news reports erodes public opinion of law enforcement, suggesting that "curtailing militarized policing may be in the interest of both police and citizens."
Tisa said he takes exception to the use of the word "militarized" when talking about vehicles like the ROOK, stating that unlike the armored vehicles police agencies began employing some years ago that were military vehicles put to work on America's streets, vehicles like the ROOK are specifically designed to meet the needs of law enforcement agencies.
"We don't term it as a military vehicle — that's an antagonistic-type statement," Tisa said.
"In the state of California, they're everywhere," Tisa added. "You can't put on a television without seeing a special vehicle being used, literally for everything."
The ROOK, which can be operated by remote control, can move vehicles, remove walls and place cameras into buildings.
"Also it is able to extend almost 20 feet. So we would be able to get onto some roofs, some balconies, safely into airplanes if needed, trains," SWAT team commander Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt told Matt Henson, of WDAY TV, who contributed to this story.