President Barack Obama ordered a formal review of U.S. programs that fund purchases of military-grade equipment by local law enforcement in the wake of the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
The White House will evaluate whether police departments have the training needed to use equipment such as body armor, automatic rifles and other military-grade gear, according to a senior administration official.
The government will also audit inventories of the equipment, study how it’s being used and evaluate whether continued federal funding is appropriate, said the official, who asked not to be named because the review hasn’t been announced.
The intensified focus on police use of military-grade equipment comes after images of the St. Louis suburb’s officers riding in heavy vehicles, firing tear gas into crowds and wearing full body armor raised questions about the appropriateness of arming local police. The riots were sparked by the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot six times while unarmed.
Obama has indicated that it would be “useful” to review how federal funds have been used to equip local law enforcement.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama told reporters on Aug. 18. “That would be contrary to our traditions.”
The Senate Homeland Security committee plans a hearing when Congress returns from its summer recess next month. Concerns about the programs have united libertarian Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and socially liberal Democrats.
“There should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” Paul wrote in Time magazine on Aug. 14.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today that officials should consider letting state governments store military equipment and distributing it to local police departments only in emergencies.
“The distribution of excess military equipment has to be examined,” Kelly said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “People get uneasy when they see Humvees, military vehicles, heavy weapons. I think the fundamental question is, what is the need?”
Some police departments have used military equipment such as armored vehicles for more than 20 years, often against active shooters or bomb threats, said Thomas Manger, police chief in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. Such equipment shouldn’t be used simply for crowd control or protests, he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
“Appropriate use is the key here,” Manger said.
The administration’s plans to review federal programs to equip local police was reported earlier by the New York Times.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has raised questions about a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at a briefing on Aug. 19.
The Ferguson Police Department has received two Humvees, made by South Bend, Indiana-based AM General LLC, from the Defense Logistics Agency since 2007, Kirby said.
Equipment provided to St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, also included six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, a robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and two night-vision devices, he said.
“How and where and under what circumstances the equipment actually gets used is up to the local law enforcement agencies to determine,” Kirby said.
The law allowing the transfer of excess military property to local police has been on the books since 1991 “and many, many law enforcement agencies have benefited from it,” primarily for drug and counter-terrorism operations, Kirby said.