The heavily armed police response to protests after a racially charged police shooting in Missouri drew widespread attention to the acquisition of military hardware by local authorities. But law enforcement associations and advocacy groups say the federal programs that provide police departments with military gear are misunderstood by both legislators and the public.
The images that came out of Ferguson, Missouri, in August were disturbing to many Americans, including some on Capitol Hill.
Media outlets showed video and photos of local officers in camouflage and riot gear aiming automatic rifles at citizens who were protesting the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on August 9.
Those events put a spotlight on a practice that has steadily increased in scope since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, yet had largely gone under the public radar: the transfer of military equipment, such as armored vehicles and assault rifles, from the Department of Defense to local police forces through the Pentagon’s 1033 program.
A New York Times graphic published last month showed that the acquisition of military surplus items goes far beyond St. Louis County.
Comedian John Oliver delivered a satiric commentary the issue for his HBO show Last Week Tonight. Oliver referenced not only the equipment used in the St. Louis suburb, but military vehicles owned by authorities in Michigan and Georgia:
The attention has led the Obama administration to call for a review of the Pentagon program.
“This equipment flowed to local police forces because they were increasingly being asked to assist in counterterrorism. But displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement last month. “It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”
a proper role
Despite the negative optics that emerged from the Ferguson protests, police groups say the equipment does have a proper role in local law enforcement.
“Most Americans watching each night in Ferguson seeing police carrying heavy military rifles pointed at unarmed protesters were concerned, as were politicians and law enforcement,” Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told The Blaze earlier this month. “But there is a place for that type of armament and equipment. When children are held hostage in schools or malls and the bad guys have high-powered rifles and pose a threat to the community, that is the time to use them.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, meanwhile, told The Hill that it is boosting its lobbying efforts to protect local law enforcement’s access to military gear in the wake of Obama’s order of a review of the Pentagon program. FOP is also concerned that lawmakers could include an amendment to block the transfer of military surplus to local police departments in a September stopgap bill to fund the federal government.
“We are the most vigorous law enforcement advocacy group, and we intend to be at our most vigorous on this issue,” FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco told the newspaper.
Pasco noted that supporters of the program will have to counter “misinformation” driven by events in Ferguson and that many of its efforts will be educational in nature.
Police groups will be responding to critics from both sides of the aisle, with libertarian-leaning Republican members of Congress, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), joining Democrats, such as Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), in opposing the militarization of local law enforcement.
And one of Missouri’s most prominent politicians, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), has pledged to hold a hearing “get all the facts” on the surplus program. McCaskill has already met with FOP representatives.