More than 30 northern Colorado police agencies have military gear

DENVER -- A growing number of law enforcement agencies are using surplus military gear, including more than 30 police departments in northern Colorado. It’s a program with critics and supporters.

Police chiefs and sheriffs say their agencies save a lot of money by getting gear from the federal government for free.

The gear, in terms of items offered, runs the gamut. When most people think “military,” tanks and powerful weapons likely come to mind. They most likely don’t think of battery-powered, glorified go-carts.

“This is a vehicle that’s safe to travel on the sidewalks,” said Michael Phibbs, chief of the Auraria Campus Police Department.

Phibbs’ department has received free military surplus gear for the past two years. Military high-powered binoculars, pistols, rifles and the electric “go-carts” are on stock for officers. Departments elsewhere have received true combat gear.

“People with SWAT teams and so forth have asked for some armor,” Phibbs said.

Armored vehicles, like ones used in the Ferguson, Missouri riots have sparked calls to de-militarize local police.

The Denver Police Department said it has not received surplus military equipment for many years. Agencies across the country face restrictions, created under the Obama administration, requiring special permission for more powerful equipment.

“[Military gear] doesn’t have to be a weapon,” Phibbs said. "It doesn’t have to be an armored vehicle.”

Phibbs said agencies use a federal government website that is not open to the public. Similar to Craigslist, the site lists available gear.

Nonprofit Open The Books has an interactive map showing agencies that receive surplus gear.

Critics such as the ACLU have called into question the need for assault rifles and large trucks, but supporters say it saves taxpayer money.

“This is a huge offset to police department budgets,” Phibbs said.

Equipment heading to police officers in Colorado doesn’t travel far. Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, is a hub for military surplus distribution.

Police stress that intimidating gear doesn’t always have a strong punch. Officers say Humvees are typically stripped of guns.

Instead, the vehicles are used to shield officers during stand-off situations or rescue people during floods.

Each year, tens of billions of dollars worth of military gear is transferred from the federal government to local police departments and sheriff’s offices -- putting more responsibility on each of those agencies.