Pentagon program equips police with military equipment - KCTV5

Pentagon program equips police with military equipment

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Police in riot gear on Wednesday in Ferguson (AP) Police in riot gear on Wednesday in Ferguson (AP)
JACKSON COUNTY, MO (KCTV/AP) -

The Ferguson Police Department acquired two armored Humvees and other U.S. military gear for free through a Pentagon program that critics blame for "militarizing America's Main Streets" and aggravating clashes between police and protesters.

The department also received a generator and a flatbed trailer under the surplus equipment program run by the Defense Logistics Agency, which is in charge of getting supplies of all types for the military.

After a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen, riots and looting broke out. Peaceful protests have also been held.

News footage and photos of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in Ferguson - a largely black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force - have provided new impetus to efforts to rein in the Pentagon program. It provides assault weapons and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee will review the program to determine if the Defense Department surplus is being used as intended.

The program began in 1990 as a way to help states and local agencies fight drug-related crime. It was expanded in the mid-1990s.

"Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," Levin said in a statement Friday. "We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents."

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department said it is important to choose when and where to use the equipment from the federal government. The department used its Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle in the past year to a standoff scene.

"We were able to use the MRAP to transport our full entry team to a person who was barricaded and we thought was armed and dangerous," said Sgt. Ronda Montgomery of the sheriff's office.

Ferguson native Amanda Reynolds said she was horrified to see her hometown torn apart this week.

"It looked like a war zone. I didn't think that was necessary," she said.

Many concurred.

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat, plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police across the country. Police responding to protesters angry about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles, sometimes pointing assault rifles at protesters.

"Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s," Johnson said in a statement. "Militarizing America's Main Streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent."

A spokeswoman for the logistics agency said its Law Enforcement Support Office distributed nearly $450 million worth of equipment last year ranging from blankets and computers to armored vehicles, boats and assault weapons. About 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in the program, known as 1033 for its section in the National Defense Authorization Act, said spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill.

Weapons account for just 5 percent of the equipment distributed, McCaskill said.

St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, has received a dozen 5.56 mm rifles, half a dozen .45-caliber pistols, night-vision goggles and a bomb-disposing robot in recent years, the defense agency said.

The 1033 program is just one of several federal programs that provide military-style equipment to local police. The Homeland Security Department offers grants for armored vehicles and other equipment, while the Justice Department provides grants for rubber bullets, tear gas and other equipment used to control crowds.

It was not clear Friday whether Ferguson police had received those grants, although St. Louis County has received grants from the Justice Department.

Montgomery, of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, said the equipment is invaluable to deputies.

"The influence on what this means to the public from a visual standpoint is not necessarily a concern we have," Montgomery said. "Our concern is keeping the public and officers protecting them safe."

Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the police response in Ferguson is just the latest example of what she called the excessive militarization of policing. Heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics groups, or SWAT teams, are forcing their way into people's homes across the country, often with little justification, she said.

"Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies," said Dansky, the lead author of a June report on the issue.

Militarization encourages officers to adopt a "warrior" mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, Dansky said. The ACLU report outlined a number of examples of equipment transfers that it said were cause for concern. For example, police in North Little Rock, AR, obtained at least 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots capable of being armed and a tactical vehicle. Many of those weapons could not be accounted for later.

Copyright 2014 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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