Boulder law enforcement agencies neglected to take care of their Christmas shopping early last year, and rampaging students at the University of Colorado made them pay for it. When riots broke out last May in the area known as The Hill in Boulder, local cops felt they didn't have enough non-lethal munitions to quell the fracas. As a result, they made two emergency flights to Casper, Wyoming, where they spent almost $36,000 on tear gas, Stinger grenades and rubber bullets.
The trips to Casper, which went unreported at the time despite a blizzard of publicity about the riots, paid off. And Captain Tom Shomaker, commander of the Boulder Sheriff Department's SWAT team, says his group won't find itself empty-handed again if another riot breaks out. This year, he says, the department is doing its shopping for non-lethal munitions ahead of time--especially the Stinger grenades, which explode in a hailstorm of rubber projectiles. The grenades proved invaluable in rousting rioters from rooftops where they had been able to pelt police with rocks and bottles at will.
The riots really shook up the cops. "In my 25 years with the force, I haven't seen anything like it," says Shomaker. "The closest thing in the past was dealing with abortion-clinic protests. But I've never seen so many attempts to injure police officers."
In two nights of rioting, fifty police officers were injured and two students were hospitalized with head wounds.
"When the riots started," says Shomaker, "we had maybe twenty rubber projectiles and fifty bean-bag rounds on hand. We used those up that first night."
The cops were caught by surprise when, on the first night of trouble, a Friday, rioters took control of the rooftops. "Bottles and rocks were coming down like rain," Shomaker says. "And this wasn't like when you were throwing rocks as a little kid and you couldn't throw very far or very hard. These were big, softball-sized rocks coming down, and there were very few officers who didn't get hit. I can recall one rock hitting me on the helmet so hard that it buckled my knees. And if you got hit in the lower-leg area, like I did, then it could really put you out of commission. I couldn't go out the next night because my knee had swollen up so badly.
"It was like the rioters thought it was a game where we were going to stand out there in riot gear so they could hit us as many times as they wanted."
The next morning the sheriff's department requisitioned the county's two-seater airplane and made a mad dash for Casper, home of Defense Technology Corporation of America, an outfitter that specializes in non-lethal munitions. A company employee says the cops had them meet the plane on the runway.
"They were in a big hurry," says the employee, who asks not to be identified. "The plane was completely full, and I didn't think they were gonna be able to fit it all in. For one department, that's a lot of money. It's definitely the biggest order out of Colorado we've ever filled. Come to think of it, the only bigger order--period--was during the Rodney King riots, when the LAPD flew out here in a DC-9."
Upon returning to Boulder, the cops distributed the equipment among hundreds of law enforcement officers. Many didn't know what to do with it.
"It's not so much the equipment as how you use it," says Shomaker. He notes that in his department, the only officers who train with tear gas and rubber bullets are SWAT team members. And they're used to dealing with standoffs and hostage negotiations, not riots, he says.
On the second night of rioting, police were finally able to clear the rooftops by lobbing the Stinger grenades. Shomaker says that once police gained control of the high ground, they considered placing sharpshooters in strategic locations as rumors circulated of "fringe elements" with guns and rioters stockpiling Molotov cocktails.
"Dealing with a riot brings out a whole different set of emotions," says Shomaker. "It's not the same as going up against a suspect, because in that situation, you know who and what you're dealing with. In the riot, there was a large group of people out to hurt me and my officers for seemingly no reason.
"Chief [Tom] Koby's point when he said we would have been justified shooting the rioters was that when you throw a rock the size of a softball at somebody's head, you are using potentially deadly force," Shomaker says. "If we didn't have helmets on, we could have been seriously injured. Looking at it that way, you can say we would've been justified shooting them from a legal standpoint, because they were using deadly force against us. But even considering that, there was never a point when the thought of using lethal force crossed our minds."
When the smoke cleared Sunday morning, the cops once again found themselves out of riot equipment. Fearing more violence, they made another trip to Wyoming to purchase more munitions.
The total tally for the equipment and the two flights came out to about $37,000, says Joseph Pura, a financial officer for the Boulder Police Department. Under a state law that requires law enforcement agencies to help each other out in emergency situations, the sheriff's department fronted the money for the equipment by dipping into its contingency fund. The bill was ultimately handed over to the Boulder police, and when added to the cost of damaged vehicles and overtime pay, says Pura, the riots ended up costing close to $230,000.
The Boulder cops don't have much to show for their expenditures: A total of 34 arrests were made during the riots, and out of those taken into custody, only a handful have served any jail time. In the weeks following the riots, the police resorted to offering cash rewards for information leading to arrests. They even went so far as to extradite a former CU football player from California because of his involvement in the two-day donnybrook.
While the City of Boulder continues to deal with the financial fallout from the riots (former city manager Tim Honey cited the city council's displeasure with the cost of the riots as one of the main reasons he resigned earlier this year), the sheriff's department is preparing for the possibility of more trouble this coming spring. Not only has it expanded its SWAT team from fourteen to fifty members, but Shomaker says it will probably buy some more non-lethal munitions, despite the fact that the second planeload from Defense Technology was never used.
"You spend the money where you need it," says Shomaker, "and up until this year, riot control was at the bottom of the list. But considering what happened this spring, we wouldn't be doing our job if we said that the riots were a one-time event that couldn't occur again.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.