Critics: Police equipped like armies going too far

Critics: Police equipped like armies going too far

August 16th, 2014 by Associated Press in Local Regional News

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

POLL: Are the police too militarized?

Closer to home

WALK THE LINE

Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher has championed community-based policing since he started in June. He's constantly working on ways to help police officers build positive relationships with community members. But police still need to be equipped to deal with serious threats, he said during a Times Free Press editorial board meeting Friday.

The department has some militarylike equipment, like a BearCat - an armored, heavy-duty vehicle - but Fletcher said that truck is necessary in certain situations.

"If someone wanted to make it appear militaristic, they certainly could," he said. "But the vehicle is designed to do things like rescue children who are involved with an active shooter. It is resistant to firearms, so we can put it between an active shooter and a victim to rescue them."

He said he hopes solid community policing can help prevent situations like the violence in Ferguson, Mo.

"What I've always done is involve the community before there is a crisis, and we're committed to doing that here as well," he said.

Who's getting military gear?

The New York Times on Aug. 15 published a database showing, county by county for the entire United States, how much military gear has been distributed to local law enforcement since 2006.

TENNESSEE

Bledsoe: 5 assault rifles

Bradley: 42 assault rifles, 106 pistols, 1 armored vehicle

Franklin: 13 assault rifles, 22 pistols, 5 shotguns, 8 night-vision pieces, 2 body armor pieces

Grundy: 2 assault rifles

Hamilton: 21 assault rifles, 4 night-vision pieces

Marion: 1 assault rifle, 5 pistols

McMinn: 110 assault rifles, 72 pistols

Meigs: 3 night-vision pieces

Monroe: 20 assault rifles, 10 shotguns

Polk: 4 assault rifles

Rhea: 5 assault rifles

Sequatchie: 10 night-vision pieces

GEORGIA

Catoosa: 13 assault rifles

Chattooga: 4 assault rifles, 2 pistols, 9 shotguns

Dade: 4 assault rifles

Walker: 15 assault rifles, 5 body armor pieces, 5 shotguns, 3 night-vision pieces, 1 armored vehicle

Whitfield: 10 assault rifles, 2 pistols

ALABAMA

DeKalb: 2 assault rifles, 1 pistol, 137 night-vision pieces

Jackson: 10 assault rifles, 2 pistols

WASHINGTON - The Missouri police department at the center of an uproar over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager acquired two armored Humvees and other 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 Ferguson Police Department received the two Humvees as well as 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.

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, D-Mich., 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."

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., 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 5.56mm 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.

Homeland Security grant money paid for the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson, said Nick Gragnani, executive director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, which administers such grants for the St. Louis area.

Since 2003, the group has spent $9.4 million on equipment for police in St. Louis County. Most of the body armor worn by officers responding to the Ferguson protests was paid for with federal money, Gragnani said.

"We are given 15 different scenarios we are supposed to be prepared for, and one of those is terrorist attacks or civil unrest," Gragnani said Friday. "Those are the response capabilities we are building up for in the St. Louis area."

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, Arkansas, 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.

Attorney General Eric Holder said he was concerned that use of military equipment by police in Ferguson was sending a "conflicting message."

The response by law enforcement to protests "must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them," Holder said. The Justice Department and FBI are investigating Brown's death.

Johnson said his bill would limit the kinds of military equipment that can be transferred to local police and require states to certify that they can account for all equipment received.

He said he is disturbed by reports that some weapons and other equipment distributed to police have gone missing. He also expressed concern that the militarization trend has moved beyond local police departments and sheriff's offices, saying Ohio State University recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP.

"Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy," Johnson said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a possible GOP presidential contender in 2016, blamed the trend on the federal government.

"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies - where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement," Paul wrote in an opinion column in Time magazine.

"There should be a difference between a police response and a military response" Paul said.