Aug 22 11:30 AM

Loaded: Local police awash in military gear

Police Sgt. Curt Molnar exits the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that sits in front of Police headquarters in Watertown, Conn. The city acquired the armored vehicle through a federal program, which allows law enforcement agencies to receive surplus military property.
Steven Valenti / The Republican-American / AP

When demonstrations erupted in Ferguson following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the county police department’s response was to roll into town in armored vehicles with officers clad in body armor and armed with military-grade rifles.

The images coming out of Ferguson have left many Americans wondering whether the country has allowed its police forces to morph into paramilitary units.

"Is this a war zone or a US city?" Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted this week.

The heavy-handed police response has even raised concerns among military veterans. “The militarization of law enforcement is counter-productive to domestic policing and needs to stop,” tweeted Andrew Exum, a former Army infantry officer and Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“We went through some pretty bad areas of Afghanistan, but we didn’t wear that much gear,” Army veteran Kyle Dykstra told the Washington Post.

The police response in Ferguson has led some members of Congress to call for demilitarization of domestic police forces.

One such proposed measure, sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., would scale back a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement.

The Pentagon's Excess Property Program was created in the early 1990s in response to the drug war. Through the program, police departments have continued to accumulate firepower and military gear, despite the fact that crime rates have dropped to their lowest levels in a generation and the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply since the 1970s.

Under the program, $4.3 billion in surplus military equipment has been sent to local police across the country.

An amendment that would have reined in the program was proposed by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., in June. The House of Representatives rejected it by a vote of 355-62.

Among those who voted against it include five of the six members of the House from the St. Louis area. When asked on CNN why he rejected the amendment, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D, whose Missouri district includes Ferguson, responded "Over 350 members of Congress voted against Mr. Grayson's amendment. I don't regret the vote. But I strongly object to a tactical police unit pointing military sniper rifles and automatic weapons at my unarmed constituents who were peacefully exercising their constitutional rights." 

Clay met Thursday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to “personally … discuss over-militarization of local police” and express “very serious concerns about the transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies."

The New York Times on Wednesday published raw data from the Pentagon that gives a detailed breakdown of the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.

Some of that equipment included machine guns, combat knives, grenade launchers, explosive ordinance disposal robots, assault helicopters and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs).

The unrestrained urge to accumulate weaponry has even reached America’s college campuses. “Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP," Rep. Johnson told The Hill. "Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy."

Perhaps even more jarring, the federal government requires departments to use the donated equipment within one year. It’s one of the few requirements included in the program, according to Vanita Gupta, the deputy legal director of the ACLU. “So,” as Gupta told WNYC, “you can only imagine how that is kind of incentivizing local law enforcement to use it.”

Among the odder requests include several coffee makers, coffee tables, and washing machines.

And police officers operating in subtropical New Orleans apparently feel they need ski-mountain boots and snow camouflage parkas, while police departments in Arizona, South Carolina and Alaska each requested a popcorn machine.

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