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Rifles, mine-resistant vehicles, robots: How Colorado police have used a federal program to stockpile military gear

More than 100 Colorado police and sheriff’s departments have received surplus military equipment under the federal 1033 program. Officials defend the acquisitions, saying they’re needed to keep officers safe.

Demonstration and protest on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Denver in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Tipping the scales in excess of 12 tons, with an estimated value of more than $700,000, the hulking mine-resistant armored combat vehicle rumbled through the streets of a small Eastern Plains town, angling toward a local park and a crowd of people.

Once there, its rear doors swung open and out stepped an American service member in uniform. The crowd cheered.

This was no military deployment, though. The scene, in August 2018 in Brush, was a ceremony marking the return home of a local Air Force reservist. And the vehicle, known as an MRAP, for mine resistant ambush protected, wasn’t a military vehicle at all — at least not anymore. On its side was painted the name of its current home: the Brush Police Department, an agency of a dozen officers, patrolling a city of about 5,000 people.

A lieutenant for the department told the Fort Morgan Times that the county sheriff had asked his agency to deploy its MRAP to help surprise the reservist’s sons with the reunion.

“Of course we’re going to do that,” the lieutenant said. “Don’t have to ask us twice.”

The happy surprise also offered a second revelation: a glimpse of the growing presence of military-style equipment in local police departments. There are now 22 agencies across Colorado with a MRAP, distributed through a federal program that has also placed nearly 1,500 assault-style rifles, more than 60 pieces of night vision equipment and more than 40 remote-controlled robots in local police and sheriff’s departments. Four new MRAPs have arrived this year, alone.

Combined, there is currently at least $30 million worth of military gear distributed by the program sitting in 135 agencies across the state, according to the most recent federal accounting. And this doesn’t count the armored vehicles and other military-style gear that police and sheriff departments have bought out of their own budgets or paid for through different federal grants.

Denver police form a line on Lincoln Street before launching tear gas canisters and pepper balls into the crowd of protesters on May 30, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

All this equipment is now drawing renewed scrutiny against a backdrop of massive, nationwide protests over police use of force and the sometimes militarized tactics with which police departments responded to those protests. During demonstrations in Denver and Colorado Springs, police departments deployed armored vehicles.

Police say the military-style gear is needed in a world where officers could encounter a heavily armed criminal on any call. Departments in Colorado have used their MRAPs or other armored vehicles to rescue people during standoffs and keep officers safe from gunfire pinging off the vehicles’ bodies. In Weld County, the sheriff’s office has dubbed its MRAP “Rescue 1.”

But skeptics question the overall impact such equipment has on policing and how officers think of themselves when patrolling the streets.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Trent Steidley, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Denver who has studied militarization within American police forces. “Once you have this equipment, there’s an incentive to use it.”

From rifles to refrigerators

The program to distribute used and surplus military gear to civilian law enforcement agencies has existed in the United States for about 30 years. It is known as the 1033 program, named after a section of law that authorized it.

Steidley said the earliest shipments from the program were focused on helping police departments fight the war on drugs. Several Colorado departments still have rifles in their armories that they received through the program way back in 1993, according to federal records.

“The idea was police departments were fighting this war on drugs and they didn’t have enough resources to do it,” Steidley said.

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But 9/11 and the global war on terror supercharged the program, creating a steady supply of equipment flowing to agencies now preparing to confront new threats. Colorado agencies received more military rifles through the program in 2002 than in any other year, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of federal data.

To receive equipment, local law enforcement agencies must request an account with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Law Enforcement Support Office. That gets them access to a website where they can browse surplus equipment for sale. In Colorado, a state office housed in the Department of Public Safety helps coordinate formal applications for equipment.

Available gear falls into two categories: controlled and uncontrolled. Uncontrolled equipment is basically anything not that dangerous — it could be a winter parka, a pair of boots, a first aid kit or a pair of binoculars. Agencies in Colorado have received refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, lawn mowers and bicycles through the program.

Controlled equipment includes the items that usually get more notice: MRAPS and other armored vehicles, assault-style rifles, robots. While uncontrolled equipment eventually becomes property of the agency, controlled equipment remains Department of Defense property.

“It’s basically loaned out to these agencies for free,” said Jan Janik, who runs the day-to-day operations at the state’s 1033 program office. “When they are no longer needing that equipment, it has to be returned to the federal government.”

Agencies are responsible for paying for shipping. But, since Fort Carson in Colorado Springs is a distribution point for equipment, many just go pick it up in person, Janik said.

Colorado law enforcement agencies with MRAPs:
• Alamosa Police Department
• Aurora Police Department
• Bent County Sheriff’s Office
• Brush Police Department
• Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office
• Commerce City Police Department
• Craig Police Department
• Florence Police Department
• Fountain Police Department
• Greeley Police Department
• Kit Carson County Sheriff’s Office
• La Plata County Sheriff’s Office
• Lake County Sheriff’s Office
• Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office
• Montrose Police Department
• Northglenn Police Department
• Otero County Sheriff’s Office
• Phillips County Sheriff’s Office
• Pueblo Police Department
• Sterling Police Department
• Vail Police Department
• Weld County Sheriff’s Office

Bomb robot, slightly used

Agencies must have plans for how they’re going to use the equipment and how they’re going to train their officers on it. Janik said his office inspects every agency participating in the program on a three-year cycle, and he said the agencies are also subject to federal audit.

Many of the agencies that participate are small and are looking for uncontrolled equipment to help stretch their slim budgets, Janik said. The police department in the southern Colorado town of Florence currently ranks second in the state for the value of equipment it has obtained through the program. In 2015, the police chief at the time told a local television station that he views the program as a cost-effective way to keep his officers safe, in a city that is home of one of the most high-profile federal prisons in the country.

“If I can get them whatever equipment I can so they can go home at night, that’s my job,” then-Chief Michael DeLaurentis told KKTV. “And sometimes I can’t afford the equipment; small city and our budget’s tight, so this is one way we offset.”

The equipment often comes used from the military, so it is common for agencies to stock up on multiple items of equipment, just so they can piece together one that works.

The Greeley Police Department, which is currently tops in the state for the value of equipment it has obtained, has received more than a dozen bomb robots and other remote-control vehicles that can be used in SWAT situations, according to federal records. But Deputy Chief Mike Zeller said the number of robots is a function of the sometimes banged-up condition in which they arrive.

“if you want one functioning robot, you may have to acquire two or three because they’re not always working 100%,” he said.

MRAPs are the biggest-ticket items from the 1033 program currently at Colorado law enforcement agencies. Airplanes are also available through the program, Janik said, but the maintenance and operation costs are too much for most agencies to justify. 

“When you get equipment from the program, what are you getting?” Janik asked. “Are you getting a brand new aircraft that can take off right away or do you have to put in hundreds of thousands of dollars before it can fly?”

The “poor man’s BearCat”

Concerns about how the 1033 program may be leading to the militarization of American police have flared before — most notably after Michael Brown, a black man, was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, leading to protests that saw police use paramilitary tactics to control the crowds. Following those protests, then-President Barack Obama ordered that the 1033 program be scaled back.

President Donald Trump reversed that order in 2017, leading to a new surge of military equipment going to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

But to Steidley, the DU professor, the question of whether the 1033 program is militarizing the police misses the mark a bit. The police were already militarized, he argues — their command structure draws from the military model, as do many of their protocols and traditions. The 1033 program, though, allows departments to further this military mindset, he said.

“The unfortunate aspect about militarism is that police have equated military equipment and military-style policing with legitimacy,” Steidley said. “Research says civilians don’t think military gear and SWAT teams make police more legit and more effective at their jobs. But the police do.”

For this reason, he said, police adoption of military-style equipment also extends well beyond the 1033 program. Several agencies across Colorado, for instance, have acquired armored vehicles developed specifically for civilian use. Both Denver and Aurora Police Department deployed such vehicles to the recent protests.

Aurora first acquired a vehicle called a BEAR in 2007 through a Homeland Security grant — though it’s unclear whether this is the same vehicle it sent to the protests. A spokesman for the Denver Police Department said the agency has two armored BearCats, which, like the BEAR, are made by the company Lenco specifically for SWAT teams.

“DPD has not participated in the 1033 Program for 10 years or longer and doesn’t currently participate in the program because the department has not identified a need to do so,” DPD spokesman Doug Schepman wrote in an email.

Steidley said these acquisitions set a trend in law enforcement.

“If Denver PD has a BearCat, then a sheriff out in a rural area who wants to look more legitimate, they might think, ‘We need to get an armored vehicle, too,’” Steidley said.

A Denver police officer stands behind the line of SWAT officers on Lincoln Street, where Denver and Aurora police staged an advance on the crowd of protesters blocking the street. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Unable to afford a BearCat, though, smaller agencies might turn to the 1033 program to supply the next best thing — an MRAP. MRAPs, which are designed to withstand bombs going off around them, come with significant limitations for civilian use, though. They’re sometimes too heavy to travel over small-town roads and bridges. They’re difficult to drive. They are essentially, Steidley said, a “poor man’s BearCat,” but having one can change how departments operate.

“If you have these armored vehicles and you’re getting them on loan from the DoD and you don’t have a use for it every day, you’re going to start coming up with reasons to use it,” he said.

“The most valuable piece of equipment”

Police say they use the equipment they receive responsibly and credit it with saving lives.

In a note to the state 1033 program’s office that was reprinted in the office’s 2017 annual report, a lieutenant for the Montrose Police Department told of using the city’s MRAP during a barricade situation with two wanted fugitives. After nine hours — and with help from a BearCat from Mesa County — the standoff ended peacefully, the lieutenant wrote.

“The MRAP is the most valuable piece of equipment available to the Montrose Police Department, second only to our officers,” Montrose Lt. Blaine Hall  wrote. “The MRAP keeps them safe and allows them to successfully do their jobs to minimize loss of life and injury to all individuals involved in these critical situations. We are thankful we have access to this valuable piece of equipment which our city could not afford otherwise. It saves lives.”

A police MRAP was used in 2017 to evacuate nearby residents during an Eagle County standoff. During a 2015 standoff, multiple shots plinked off the Florence police MRAP while a Fremont County sheriff’s deputy was inside. Colorado Springs police used their BearCat to rescue people trapped inside a Planned Parenthood clinic during a mass shooting and standoff there in 2015.

And agencies have also deployed their armored vehicles to rescue stranded motorists during floods and blizzards.

In Greeley, Deputy Chief Zeller said the department has used its MRAP five times so far this year in SWAT situations. It deployed the vehicle six times last year, and only once in 2018.

Every time the MRAP is put to use, Zeller said it requires approval from the city’s police chief. Zeller said the department emphasizes that it is a civilian law enforcement agency here to serve the public, and it wants to be careful not to give its officers or the community any reason to think otherwise.

“We are sensitive to that,” he said. “Our relationship with our community is vitally important.”

Greeley has accumulated more than $2.4 million worth of equipment from the program, according to federal records. But Zeller said the department’s acquisitions have slowed in recent years.

The rifles available through the program aren’t best suited to police use, he said. Officers began asking to use rifles they had bought themselves, and the department also bought new rifles to replace the ones from the 1033 program.

So, now, Greeley police have reached a decision. They are going to send back most of the military rifles they received through the program.

“We don’t want to collect a bunch of old stuff to have around that we’re not going to use,” Zeller said.

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