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Local law-enforcement agencies take advantage of federal program to obtain military gear, weapons

September 22, 2014 Updated: September 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm
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The Colorado Springs Police Department acquired nonarmored Humvees so it would not have to repeat what happened after a blizzard shut down the city in October 1997. The Green Mountain Falls Police Department obtained rifles to better deal with bears that could put officers in danger. The Palmer Lake Police Department does not get new equipment through the program anymore.

The use of military vehicles and heavy weapons aimed at mostly peaceful protesters by the police in Ferguson, Mo., after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown, reignited the discussion of the Department of Defense's 1033 program. The program provides excess military equipment to agencies for free to aid law enforcement for reasons including counteroffensive drug and terrorist operations and officer safety. It was established by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act in the early 1990s and the transfer of the equipment to federal and state agencies was granted under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997.

A records review of law enforcement agencies across the state, audits of departments in El Paso and Fremont counties, and interviews with department officials shows that the uses of the equipment vary, and often are not for major military purposes.

The state's 1033 program is coordinated by the Colorado State Patrol, and 142 agencies participate in the program. El Paso County has seven agencies, program data show, second only behind Jefferson County, which has nine. Three agencies participate in Fremont County.

Lt. Catherine Buckley, spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Police Department, said the 1997 blizzard left a mark on the department. CSPD had to borrow Humvees from the military to move personnel and respond to calls for service.

"That was the only way we could get around town," she said. "We had officers that stayed at people's homes for 12 hours at a time because they could not get their vehicles."

The department now has five nonarmored Humvees, plus two used for spare parts, which can be used in response to floods, fires and storms, she said. It also has obtained fleece pants, balaclavas, sleeping bags, and backpacks with rain gear, through the program. 
"It's very much a recycling program for equipment that's already been paid for in public dollars," she said. "Any time we can get these goods from the military, and it's not a cost to the citizens, it's a benefit to the community."

Green Mountain Falls' part

The police department in Green Mountain Falls, home to about 660 people, also participates in the 1033 program. The department has five M-14 and M-16 rifles, as well as three .45 caliber pistols, according to a recent audit.

Chief Timothy Bradley said the department deals with issues with large animals, like bears, so he wanted larger-caliber rifles on hand. The program also helps provide backup weapons for the department because all eight of the sworn officers use their own, he said.

"Based on our budget, we can't do what bigger agencies do," he said. "I'm happy to have patrol rifles in the vehicle in the event that we need it."

Bradley said he is looking to request a soft-top Humvee with a snorkel next year to help in case of flooding.

"I want that for a potential rescue vehicle that might be able to go through deep water," he said.

Items can be requested online and picked up at a Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office. Fort Carson is one location where equipment can be picked up, making it easier for local agencies to acquire items without incurring shipping or transportation costs. The Defense Logistics Agency runs the DRMO program at Fort Carson.

Mimi Schirmacher, a DLA spokeswoman, said in an email that 95 percent of equipment given to law enforcement agencies are not weapons, and fewer than 1 percent are tactical vehicles. More than 8,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participate in the program, she said, and the departments need to meet a certain criteria to be accepted. All requests, she said, are screen locally by the law enforcement agencies, the state coordinator and finally by the Law Enforcement Support Office in Battle Creek, Mich.

The LESO reports the 1033 program has transferred more than $5 billion worth of property, since its inception.

Equipment acquired

Agencies in El Paso and Fremont counties acquire military equipment similar to that which was criticized after the police response in Ferguson. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office and CSPD have combined to add more than 200 rifles through the program. The Sheriff's Office received an unarmed cargo carrier vehicle used by search and rescue. The Fountain Police Department has an armored vehicle, which it received from CSPD in 2009, a 2012 audit of the Florence Police Department shows it had two bomb trucks and 10 M-16s and the Cañon City Police Department has two tear gas launchers, in addition to 11 M-16s and M-14s.

Cañon City Police Chief Paul Schultz said since he took over the department in 2012 it has acquired items such as boots, sunglasses and gloves through the 1033 program. Some of the rifles were converted to semi-automatic and are used by patrol officers, the remaining are in storage in case of a SWAT team situation, he said. The tear gas launchers, Schultz said, have never been used and are also in storage. Those were obtained before he became chief.

"Municipal budgets across the country are very tight, and if this equipment is available and there is need for it. It seems like a very valuable program," he said.

Although tear gas launchers might not seem needed in the city of 16,000 people, Schultz said the unknown of when that time may come is why they are still on hand.

"We would almost be remiss if we didn't have them."

Buckley also said the enhanced equipment can be useful in dangerous and difficult situations.

"Everything we do in law enforcement is a balance. We always looks at what we call the priority of life and the number one thing on that priority are the victims, the citizens and then our officers, and then the bad guy," she said. "So if we have to create situations so that we can protect the citizens and the victims, sometimes that requires weapons that are different than our handguns."

Denise Maes, public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said she does not disagree with the aspects of a program that provides police with practical gear such as boots, sleeping bags or other items to deal with disasters. It's when they obtain high-powered weapons and vehicles just in case of a heightened situation is problematic, she said.

"When you acquire these sorts of items, then you are more apt to use them," Maes said. "I still strongly believe that some of this equipment is way too much for whatever is potentially probable."

Since Brown's killing on Aug. 9, President Barack Obama ordered a review of the program, U.S. senators criticized it before a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing, and greater federal oversight has been proposed. Maes said she would like to see greater scrutiny from state legislatures when they return in January.

"You don't want things to come and go and lose momentum," she said.

Lt. Jason Vanderpool, who oversees the 1033 program for the Palmer Lake Police Department, said it does not receive items from the 1033 program anymore. He said it became too difficult to use the program's website, to get the equipment, and that much of the items were not being used.

The department, he said, got two M-14s for its honor guard, but it "just didn't have the manpower" to keep it going, he said.

The rifles were transferred to another department, Vanderpool said, but Palmer Lake still has a few items it got through the 1033 program, like a motion detector. "We're a very small agency," he said. "We don't utilize it for the simple fact that there was nothing to justify having."

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