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Small Colorado towns reusing weapons of war

9Wants to Know, where did the $22 million in equipment go? 9WTK found a program that's sent half to departments with 20 or fewer officers.
Yuma Co MRAP from the 1033 Program

ID=18609005KUSA – Nearly half of the $22 million in excess military equipment sent to the state under the military's now-controversial 1033 Program was donated to smaller Colorado law enforcement agencies. The analysis, completed by 9Wants to Know, suggests a highly rural tone to a story that has generated international headlines since clashes erupted with police on the streets of Ferguson, Mo.

In northeastern Colorado's Yuma County, the sheriff has amassed a small arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles in preparation for a day he hopes will never come to a county with a population of 10,000 people. The most high-profile piece of equipment he owns: a massive mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP.

"One of the first things that I was asked about the MRAP when it rolled into town was, 'Are you going to use that to take away our guns?'" Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day said.

The ardent supporter of the 2nd Amendment laughs about it now.

"I wish we didn't need [an MRAP,] and now that we have one, I hope the thing sits in the yard until the wheels rust off of it, but I know better than that," he said.

According to data reviewed by 9Wants to Know, 49 percent of donated 1033 equipment went to agencies that have 20 or fewer officers. In addition, nearly 60 percent of donated 1033 equipment went to agencies that serve areas with fewer than 25,000 people.

Started in the 90s largely to help local law-enforcement agencies combat drug-related activities, the 1033 Program has since morphed into a massive property distribution platform for everything from tents and sleeping bags to M-16s and armored vehicles.

The program went largely ignored for years until clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Mo., this year prompted politicians to take a renewed look at the so-called "militarization" of local police departments. Interestingly, according to data analyzed by 9Wants to Know, while St. Louis County law enforcement agencies have taken part in 1033, the acquisitions have been largely innocuous in nature.

In other words, much of the "militarized" equipment seen in Ferguson was acquired through other means, likely through Homeland Security grants or simple purchases by the individual agencies.

In Colorado, the largest police force in the state has not taken part in the 1033 Program. According to state data, the Denver Police Department has zero pieces of 1033 equipment.

By comparison, the Florence Police Department, which serves less than 4,000 people, has acquired more than $3.7 million of 1033 equipment. The figure puts the Fremont County community at the top of the list of Colorado beneficiaries of the 1033 Program.

In Fremont County, native Chicagoan Mike DeLaurentis is in charge of the 10 full-time officers inside the Florence Police Department.

He's unapologetic about taking advantage of the 1033 Program. In addition to the 10 M-16s his 10 officers now have, he, too, has an MRAP.

"It's not the perfect piece of equipment, there's no doubt, but it's what we could afford," Chief DeLaurentis said.

A Bearcat, commonly seen in Ferguson, can run upwards of $300,000.

"I don't have that kind of budget. I don't think anyone in the Fremont County area has that," he said.

Other than the cost of picking it up, his MRAP cost his office nothing.

He's used it four times since getting it earlier this year. In all cases, he says, it was deployed to instances where someone had become barricaded inside a building.

"In two instances, shots were fired," DeLaurentis said.

"We're not trying to militarize our police department, not in the slightest bit," he insists. His opinion on the MRAP echoes something 9Wants to Know heard over and over again.

"We use the MRAP for protection. It's a rescue vehicle," he said.

Nine Colorado law enforcement agencies now have MRAPs. More than half of those went to agencies that serve less than 52,000 people.

Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day serves a county in which cows outnumber people 26 to 1. He says his MRAP will be used only to protect his officers or to evacuate people in the event of an active shooter situation.

"You know, potentially drive this thing up to a door or classroom and load it up with people," he said.

Of the nine Colorado agencies that now have MRAPs, the Pueblo Police Department has used theirs the most. Since April 8, Pueblo Police have deployed the MRAP seven times. On five of the deployments, it was used on what the police department says was a "high risk search/arrest warrant" execution.

Yuma County, Vail, Montrose and Aurora have yet to use their MRAPs in tactical situations. Weld County has used theirs three times. La Plata County has used theirs once. According to office spokesperson, Dan Bender, deputies used the MRAP to help get a suicidal woman out of a home. Florence has used theirs four times. Chief DeLaurentis tells 9Wants to Know two of those occasions involved shots fired. No officers were injured.

In all, according to analysis done by 9Wants to Know, Colorado law enforcement agencies have deployed MRAPs on 16 occasions, half to assist on high risk warrants.

On Aug. 13, Greeley Police, using one of their 72 M-16s acquired under the 1033 Program, shot Jacinto Zavala, 21, shortly after he told a 911 operator he was interested in a "shootout." Prosecutors found the shooting to be justified, but it represents one of the few times nationwide a fatal police shooting could be linked to a 1033 weapon.

"My fear is once you've got it, you're going to want to use it," Denise Maes, who works with the ACLU in Colorado, said.

This year, the ACLU published a report "War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing." In it, the ACLU concluded 79 percent of the SWAT deployments it studied were for the purpose of executing a search warrant.

"Local police departments should develop their own internal policies calling for appropriate restraints on the use of SWAT and should avoid all training programs that encourage a warrior mindset," reads the report.

"I think, clearly, there is far less militarized equipment that would do the job. I think that's primarily what we take issue with," Maes said.

As an ardent supporter of the 2nd Amendment, Windsor gun store manager Seth Stern falls on the opposite end of the political spectrum of the ACLU. Even still, the Bear Arms manager finds common ground with the ACLU on the issue of 1033.

"I think uniformed officers tend to behave in the way they are equipped," he said. "No one says no to free equipment. You're offered gear, you're offered equipment, then you take it, and that's because people like new toys. I don't need a department that does most of its work collecting traffic tickets and parking fines being armed enough to take on a Columbian drug lord."

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith has occasionally taken equipment from the 1033 Program, but has not yet done so with a tremendous amount of gusto.

"In this world you're judged by how you look and how you appear," he said.

Earlier this year, his office took over the policing of the Berthoud Police Department after finding multiple problems within the now dissolved department. In a scathing letter written to the Berthoud Mayor, Sheriff Smith criticized the Berthoud PD for the fact that "fully automatic machine guns [not appropriate for standard police operations] were acquired from the military and were stored in an open room with minimal security."

Sheriff Smith eventually took over possessions of the weapons.

"Really, I think the better discussion is about tactics. What is the mindset behind the equipment is pushed toward them," he said.

In January 2014, the Colorado State Patrol notified the federal government that it had lost one of the 129 M-16s it had acquired under the 1033 Program.

The Colorado State Patrol, which helps administer the 1033 Program for Colorado agencies, tells 9Wants to Know five other agencies have reported missing weapons.

As Sheriff Day surveys his massive MRAP, he'll tell you it's hardly the best piece of equipment for the job.

"No, it's not ideal, but the ideal piece of equipment is $300,000," he said.

Denver is big enough to buy a Bearcat, he said, or at least it's big enough to qualify for a grant to buy one from the Department of Homeland Security.

His office, he said, simply doesn't have the budget to equip his deputies with this type of equipment.

Little Alma, Colo., with a population of less than 300, received the most equipment per capita. With $357,000 in 1033 equipment, Alma received $1336 in equipment for every resident. Like much of the items distributed under the 1033 Program, however, Alma's equipment has a decidedly non-militarized angle to it.

According to data reviewed by 9Wants to Know, Alma received everything from a tractor and wrench set to battery charger and a pair of tents.

In Yuma County, Sheriff Day's office received a basketball hoop and a pair of woodworking machines.

In Fremont County, Florence Police Chief DeLaurentis received exercise equipment, laptop computers and a number of defibrillators.

The night-vision goggles he received don't work. The lenses are smashed.

But he, like Sheriff Day, remains convinced the program remains beneficial to smaller police departments.

"I've been in law enforcement 37 years. [Bad things] happen in small departments. It really does," he said.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)