Senate Committee to Probe Pentagon's Arming of City Police
August 16, 2014 Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & David Mastio and Kelsey Rupp / USA Today & Kristina Wong / The Hill
Images of camouflaged US police wielding military-grade equipment and armored vehicles cracking down on public protests on the streets of Missouri, have become a enduring image that finally has brought attention to the growing militarization of US civilian police. Mounting concern has finally caught the notice of Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin who says the Pentagon's policy of arming police will be reviewed before the next military spending bill is passed.
Senate Committee to Probe Pentagon Arming of Police Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(August 15, 2014) -- Images of camouflaged US police wielding military-grade equipment and armored vehicles cracking down on public protests on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, have become an enduring image in the minds of many Americans, and have finally brought attention to years of militarization of US civilian police forces.
Growing concern has finally caught the notice of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (D – MI), the chairman, says that the Pentagon's policy of arming police will be reviewed before the next military spending bill is passed.
"Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," Levin insisted, referring to the 1033 program.
Drug war hysteria was the nominal pretext for 1033, the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, which in 1993 to provide "surplus" Pentagon equipment to law enforcement across the country.
Under the law, the weapons are only supposed to be used for "counterdrug investigations and activities," though for years the Pentagon has been giving tanks, armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and everything else to small-town American police, which have turned themselves into miniaturized militaries.
Ferguson police, naturally, were not engaged in "counterdrug activities" in roughing up protesters and journalists, but neither are half of the police departments in America that are using the exact same gear. The question is whether the Senate will do anything about it, or if the momentum behind the program is enough to keep pro-police Senate from digging too deeply into how their 1993 program turned America's streets into a literal battlefield.
(August 14, 2014) -- St. Louis County law enforcement agencies received twelve 5.56 millimeter rifles and six .45 caliber pistols from the Department of Defense between Aug. 2, 2010, and Feb. 13, 2013, a Missouri public safety official confirmed Thursday. Ferguson, Mo., is within St. Louis County. The Pentagon allows information on "tactical" equipment to be released only at a county level, so which police department(s) in the county received the weaponry is not available.
The Pentagon might not have boots on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police on Saturday, but it does have wheels on the street.
Michelle McCaskill, media relations chief at the Defense Logistics Agency, confirms that the Ferguson Police Department is part of a federal program called 1033 that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars of surplus military equipment to civilian police forces across the United States. The materials range from small items, such as pistols and automatic rifles, to heavy armored vehicles such as the MRAPs used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"In 2013 alone, $449,309,003.71 worth of property was transferred to law enforcement," the agency's website states.
According to McCaskill, the most recent transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense to small Ferguson was in November and included two vehicles as well as a trailer and a generator. Details on the vehicles and their intended uses have not been released by the Pentagon. Information on any prior transfers is also unavailable.
A state public safety official told USA TODAY that the Pentagon does not allow detailed information on "tactical" equipment to be released at a police force level, only at a county level. According to a document provided by the official, police forces in the same county as Ferguson received advanced rifle sights and night vision equipment between 2012 and 2014.
There is no evidence that any such equipment has yet been used in the Brown case and its aftermath. But such "police militarization" is just one element of an often-toxic relationship between minority communities and local police.
Since the creation of the 1033 program by Congress in the early 1990s, the program has distributed $4.3 billion of excess equipment, ranging from innocuous office supplies to bomb-disposing robots and other advanced technology. The flood of military supplies -- along with the continuing drug war and grant programs from other federal agencies that provide military-style equipment -- has pushed the culture of police forces far from its law-enforcement roots.
Indeed, the motto of the 1033 program is "From Warfighter to Crimefighter."
So it is not a surprise that police officers often seem prepared for war. In Ferguson, that change is most dramatically revealed in the images of camouflage-wearing police officers with assault rifles, body armor and multiple extra magazines facing unarmed protesters with their hands preemptively raised in the air.
The disturbing trend of police militarization permits law enforcement agencies to view people in their communities as threats, rather than as citizens with rights, reports TheWashington Post's Radley Balko, who has covered the militarization of the police extensively.
Elsewhere in Missouri, agencies participating in the 1033 program have acquired "aircraft (both fixed wing and rotary) and four-wheel drive vehicles (such as pickup trucks, blazers, ambulances and armored personnel carriers)," according to the state's Department of Public Safety.
If there's one thing a community in turmoil does not need is for anyone to turn up the heat as protesters and police face off and tempers simmer. But before a local police officer fired his first shot at the unarmed teen, the U.S. military helped make sure there was plenty of fuel to bring things to a boil.
David Mastio is the Forum Editor of USA TODAY, where Kelsey Rupp is a Collegiate Network Fellow. Senate Armed Services Chief
To Review Pentagon Program Arming Cops Kristina Wong / The Hill
(August 15, 2014) -- The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee intends to review a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to police agencies, following the use of controversial police tactics in Ferguson, Mo.
"Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement Friday.
"Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," he added.
"We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents."
Levin's move comes after police officers in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, used military vehicles and equipment acquired by the Pentagon to quell protests following the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager.
Images of police riding atop armed-personnel carriers and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), and dressed in camouflage, led critics on both the left and the right to press lawmakers to end the Pentagon program.
Civil libertarians have warned that the program risks "militarizing" local police forces. During the riots, two reporters covering the events were detained, further fueling anger over the police force's alleged heavy-handed response.
But police groups have defended the transfers, saying that local law enforcement officials need the military gear and equipment.
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