Bringing it Home: Military-style law enforcement not needed in Aspen, Pitkin County
Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
The clash between residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and members of its Police Department has cast the spotlight on the militarization of police forces, but both Aspen and Pitkin County’s law enforcement agencies don’t use military-surplus equipment.
“It just doesn’t fit who we are,” said Bill Linn, assistant chief of the Aspen Police Department. “We could get used military rifles through this program to equip our police officers, but if we needed something, we wouldn’t want to buy an old, beat-up firearm that we’re counting on as a life-saving tool.”
Humvees, rocket launchers and other surplus military equipment also are items Linn and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said aren’t in demand for law enforcement agencies in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, a relatively safe area.
In June, The New York Times, basing a report on Pentagon data, said that police departments across the nation have “received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft” during the Obama administration.
And last week, the newspaper published an interactive map breaking down, county by county throughout the U.S., how much equipment the Defense Department has dealt out to law enforcement agencies.
Through the program, nearby Garfield County has collected eight assault rifles; Summit County 16 assault rifles; Eagle County 31 assault rifles, 10 pistols and one night-vision piece; and Mesa County nine pistols, five assault rifles and one armored vehicle.
Larger counties, such as Jefferson, the state’s fourth-most populous, has used the program to acquire 341 assault rifles, 65 night-vision pieces, one grenade launcher, one armored vehicle and one pistol.
DiSalvo said he’s been aware of the program but has felt no need for it.
“I question the need for this,” he said, pointing to the police-civilian clashes in Ferguson. “I do worry about small police agencies getting military surplus.”
DiSalvo recalled that at one time under Sheriff Bob Braudis, the Sheriff’s Office linked with the police departments in Aspen, Basalt and Snowmass Village to form a Critical Incident Management Unit, similar to a SWAT team.
Yet the training needed to sustain the operation interfered with more pressing matters among law enforcement, and eventually, the program folded because of a lack of demand for it.
“If I need that (type of help),” DiSalvo said, “I’ll call Mesa County or another sheriff in the state.”
Deputies hired by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office are required to buy their own handguns, which can start at $600. The Sheriff’s Office will provide them no-interest loans to buy the firearms if needed.
The Sheriff’s Office provides all deputies with AR-15s, and the department’s budget calls for $70,000 for tactical vests and helmets, which have a lifespan of five years; $26,000 for patrol rifles, which have a 10-year lifespan; $6,500 annually for soft-body armor; and $20,000 for Taser equipment, which has a five-year lifespan.
DiSalvo said that other state law enforcement agencies have often questioned why Pitkin County isn’t as well-equipped. For instance, Garfield County has a $250,000 armored BearCat vehicle, which functions much like a tank.
“Some other county sheriffs say, ‘How could you live a minute without that stuff?’” DiSalvo said.
Like DiSalvo, Linn said the Aspen area simply doesn’t need to project some type of militaristic image given its low crime rate.
“There is an ongoing effort of community policing here,” Linn said. “That’s not what we’re about, having this tough-fronted, hard-nosed thing.”
Linn said the vests some police officers have been wearing for about eight months have raised a few eyebrows, though. However, the vests, which could easily be confused with body armor, are used to hold gear that normally was supported by officers’ waist belts.
“The whole point of that was for the back health of the officers,” Linn said. “We weren’t seeking a militaristic appearance.”
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There is a lot of pent up energy among hikers and bikers to get into the high country, but snow fields, avalanche debris and high stream crossings are presenting challenges later than usual. Forest rangers with the Aspen-Sopris District provide trail condition reports that are updated each week so hikers and backpackers aren’t caught unaware.