Local law enforcement agencies have an arsenal of military weapons at their disposal, but they don't use them often.

Eight agencies in El Paso County, including the Colorado Springs Police Department, combined have received at least 610 pieces of military equipment, mostly M-16 rifles, from a government military surplus program since 2006. Yet city police can only recall firing those weapons on a few occasions.

The high-powered equipment is for situations that "could arise," said Colorado Springs police Sgt. Tim Stankey.

Exact statistics showing when police have used the military rifles were not available, Stankey said, though he confirmed police do have to log every time they fire a weapon while on duty. They do not have to document when the weapons are deployed and not fired, he said.

Still, since 2006, the department has fired their military hand-me-downs on "two or three calls," Stankey said.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office was even more vague about the number of times it has used its 44 M-16 rifles and four M-14 rifles. Because the government doesn't require agencies to track use, sheriff's spokeswoman Jackie Kirby said she couldn't answer how many times the guns were fired.

The sheriff's office is returning its four M-14 guns this year, Kirby said. They were previously used by the county's SWAT team, but are no longer needed, she said.

"The program can put it out to the state to see if any other agency needs them," Kirby said.

The 1033 Program helps law enforcement "match" force for force with suspects who carry out attacks with high-powered rifles, because "a handgun versus a rifle is pretty mismatched," Stankey said.

A shooting like the Nov. 27 attack at Planned Parenthood is an example of when the weapons would be deployed "because you have a suspect with a rifle," Stankey said. He did not confirm whether police fired their military guns during the Planned Parenthood operation.

Robert Lewis Dear, who has admitted the attack in court, was carrying four Soviet-style SKS semi-automatic rifles when he unleashed terror on the clinic, killing three, including a police officer.

Similar semi-automatic rifles, weapons with military features and guns with high-capacity magazines have been used in more than half of the 62 mass shootings in the U.S. over the past three decades, according to a study by Mother Jones magazine.

Most recently, Omar Mateen carried an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun when he killed 50 people and wounded 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The shooting renewed calls to ban military-style weapons.

Of the roughly 300 million firearms owned by American citizens, more than 12 million of them are AR-platform or AK-style rifles, the National Shooting Sports Foundation said. M-14 and M-16 rifles, like the ones police have, are "not held by a large number of individuals, since they are regulated under two federal laws," the foundation said.

Military hand-me-downs

The Department of Defense's 1033 program was established in the early 1990s to give free aid to law enforcement for reasons including drug and anti-terrorist operations and officer safety.

"Acquiring equipment for no charge from the military is a great way to maximize a law enforcement agency's budget," the Defense Department said in a report on the program released this month.

Most of that aid isn't weaponry. The bulk is office equipment, kitchen equipment, computers, blankets, sleeping bags and digital cameras, said Michelle McCaskill, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, which runs the 1033 program at Fort Carson.

But not in El Paso County, the inventory list shows.

Colorado Springs police have received more weapons - at least 417 pieces - than any other agency in the county, making them second in the state only to the Drug Enforcement Administration in Centennial, which has 545 pieces, according to Defense Logistics Agency inventory.

Almost all are rifles: 390 M-16s and 14 M-14s, inventory showed.

"It's a different weapon system" officers can use, especially for long-range shooting when their handguns may not be the most accurate, Stankey said. Officers qualify on their duty weapons at ranges of up to 25 feet, he said.

McCaskill said numbers may be skewed because the military tracks general equipment only for one year before it becomes the property of the agency. "Controlled property" like guns are tracked forever, she said.

Colorado Springs police also received five Humvees in 2013.

The department has said the Humvees were needed to prevent problems seen in the October 1997 blizzard, which shut down the city. At the time, police borrowed trucks from Fort Carson to respond to emergency calls.

The city last received equipment from the program in 2014, and was suspended from the program for 60 days this year when the city had trouble "tracking down" an M-16 during a mandated review, Stankey said. The department was disciplined for the delay in presenting the weapon, which has since been found, he said.

The suspension will be lifted this month.

Seven other county agencies have used the program.

- The El Paso County Sheriff's office last received equipment in 2010, when it was sent an cargo carrier vehicle used by search and rescue, records show. It also received 44 M-16 rifles and four M-14 rifles in 2006.

"It allows us to access equipment we may not otherwise be able to afford," Kirby said. "it's a fiscal benefit to the sheriff's office, to the county, and therefore to tax payers."

- Green Mountain Falls Police Department has four M-16s, three M-14s, three .45-caliber pistols and a utility truck. Former Chief Timothy Bradley told The Gazette in 2014 the department wanted the rifles to protect officers against large animals, like bears, and wanted a Humvee in case of flooding.

All equipment was turned over to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for safekeeping in April when Bradley and his three volunteer officers resigned, Mayor Jane Newberry said. Applications are still being accepted to replace the chief.

- Fountain police received an armored truck in 2009.

- Manitou Springs Police Department received 14 M-16s from 2006 to 2010.

- Woodland Park Police Department received 20 M-16s from 2006 to 2014.

- CaΓ±on City Police Department received computers, support equipment, gun accessories, three M-14s and 17 M-16s as recently as January 2015.

- Palmer Lake Police Department didn't participate in the program until 2014, when it received various safety and firing accuracy equipment.

The agencies are among 163 in Colorado that participate in the program, and 8,000 federal, state and local participants nationwide, the military said.

Automatic weapons modified

The program has long been criticized, but calls to demilitarize America's police peaked in 2014 and 2015, when police aimed military vehicles and heavy weapons at mostly peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

Stankey argued the guns aren't the same as used by the military.

While M-14s and M-16s offer police accuracy in long-range firing and more power to combat armed suspects, they're different from the ones troops carry in combat, Stankey said. The fully automatic feature is removed before the guns are turned over, meaning officers must pull the trigger each time they want to fire a shot.

"We're responsible for every round that leaves our gun," Stankey said.

He would not confirm whether the department has automatic weapons, saying the information could compromise police tactics.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

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Kaitlin is a public safety reporter with a focus on investigations. She is a proud Ohioan, champion for local libraries, volunteer reading tutor and an expert ice cream connoisseur (mint chocolate chip!). She joined the Gazette in 2016.

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