After years of being ill-prepared for the worst, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office recently acquired enough riot gear for all officers who would be called upon to quell a violent disturbance.
"It would be irresponsible if we didn't look out for the welfare of our deputies as best we could," says Commander Cliff Northam.
The gear includes 115 protective helmets, 115 sets of forearm protectors, 25 riot shields and 25 riot batons, at a total cost of $19,000.
The gear was ordered in mid-June following an April incident at a carnival just west of Powers Boulevard, and is not related to any concerns that demonstrations could take place in connection with the "Black Lives Matter" movement, for example, or some other issue that might give rise to an incident, Northam says.
"It's always in the back of our minds," he says in an interview, referring to riots. "We want to be prepared for those things. But I think we live in a community that seems far removed from those kinds of protests."
On April 25, a combination of gang activity and high-school rivalry "got out of hand" near the intersection of Powers and Palmer Park Boulevard where a carnival was underway, Northam says. When a riot broke out, people pelted officers with bottles and rocks.
"It got larger and had potential to go really badly," Northam says.
"The CSPD [Colorado Springs Police Department] came, and all their officers were supplied with riot gear, and we realized when they started throwing stuff at our guys, there was potential for injury," he says. "We didn't have helmets. We didn't have shields."
While SWAT and the jail's special response team are equipped with such gear, patrol deputies were not, he notes, and hadn't been for "many, many years." The special response team in the jail uses the equipment to subdue inmates without using weapons.
"They don that gear when they have someone totally out of control and refuses to comply," he says. "Mostly they rush in, crowd the person up against a wall with the shields and get them secured in handcuffs."
The carnival drove home the notion that road deputies' safety could be at stake and the department "didn't have our folks properly attired for an event like that," Northam says.
Now, deputies are being trained with the gear, so they're prepared if something similar erupts.
The equipment can only be deployed with approval from a duty supervisor, Northam says, and would be used only in "extreme circumstances."
Northam says the gear wasn't used during the Nov. 27 shootings at Planned Parenthood, because the gear is suitable for rocks, bottles and sticks, but not bullets. "Our SWAT team was already equipped with specialized gear which they use on a regular basis and used that day," he says.
The purchase brings the Sheriff's Office in line with other Front Range police agencies, many of which have had riot gear for years. "Of the larger agencies, we're probably one of the last to get it," Northam says.
CSPD Sgt. Joel Kern says via email that the department provides such gear to its "Crowd Control Teams," which are drawn from various units and receive specialized training. "The crowd control gear, like the shin guards and shields, is stored at various locations throughout the city and is deployable," he adds. "Each patrol officer has a Kevlar helmet without a face shield and a PR-24 or expandable baton that is used for crowd control situations."
Besides the April carnival episode, Kern says the last time he recalls the gear being deployed was at war protests in Palmer Park in February 2003. That's when police fired tear gas at anti-war demonstrators who rallied at the park before spilling onto Academy Boulevard, according to the Associated Press.
Pueblo Police Department has had helmets, shields and batons since 1999, Capt. Jeffrey Bodmer says via email. "We have used this gear during in-service training on crowd control techniques and have had it available on standby during certain events over the years," he says, "but have never had the need to deploy the gear during a real situation."
The Denver Police Department obtained riot gear for officers prior to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, says Denver Police director of communications Sonny Jackson. How the equipment is deployed depends on the situation, he says.
"Obviously," he says, "we need to protect our officers. A lot of things in life you hope you don't have to use them, but when you need them you have to have them."
Like Denver, the Aurora Police Department has had riot gear since at least 2008, a spokesman says. "As it stands all officers are issued some gear," the spokesman says via email. "Some frontline officers are issued more than just some gear. For instance all officers get a helmet, gasmask, and baton at least. Other officers will get more items such as pads that protect elbows, knees and ankles."
Neither Denver nor Aurora departments could name events at which the gear was most recently used.