Ferguson: In calling the National Guard, emphasis is on 'limited' role

President Obama said he hoped that the role of the National Guard would be limited, and suggested that local police departments reexamine their use of heavy military equipment when confronting protesters.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama speaks to reporters at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.
Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Police meet for a late afternoon roll call and briefing prior to the National Guard's arrival in Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. President Obama said on Monday he hoped that the role of the National Guard would be limited.

When Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced he was calling upon National Guard troops to help restore order in Ferguson, he stressed that their role would be tightly controlled.

These forces will have “immediate and limited responsibilities,” he said in a statement released Monday. 

President Obama echoed that sentiment in an address Monday afternoon, saying that he, too, hoped that the role of the National Guard would be limited.

At the same time, he suggested that local police departments reexamine their use of heavy military equipment when confronted with protesters. 

Chief among the mandates given to the incoming National Guardsmen will be to protect the police command center, which was the target of attacks late Sunday, according to the governor.

“Last night, Ferguson, Mo., experienced a very difficult and dangerous night as a result of a violent criminal element intent upon terrorizing the community,” Governor Nixon said. “As long as there are vandals and looters and threats to the people and property of Ferguson, we must take action to protect our citizens.” 

It is unclear whether the National Guard troops will also be tasked with providing security in downtown Ferguson.

“Right now they are working out the details of what they will be doing,” says Jeremy Webster, a spokesman for the National Guard in Washington, D.C. “The governor will be deciding that.” 

On Sunday night, police officers were fired on and some protesters threw Molotov cocktails, said Nixon, who also cited looting and “a coordinated attempt to block roads and overrun the unified command center.” 

The governor officially requested the assistance of the National Guard to help the police “unified command in restoring peace and order to this community.”

The National Guard request has followed on the heels of concerns that the response of the police in Ferguson had been overly militarized. 

The Ferguson Police Department received surplus equipment from the Pentagon under its 1033 program, which allows the transfer of vehicles, rifles, and even office supplies to local police departments. These transfers have been worth approximately $4 billion since the program was enacted by Congress in 1997. Police forces in all 50 states have received these transfers.

In recent days, the program has come under intense scrutiny from lawmakers. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that he plans to investigate the use of the weapons and vehicles, including armored Humvees and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles once used in Afghanistan.

“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Senator Levin said in a statement. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily-armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents.”

Before allowing the next defense bill to go to the Senate floor, however, the committee “will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.” 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia will introduce the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” when Congress returns from recess in September. The bill will ban the transfer of “automatic weapons not generally recognized as particularly suitable for law enforcement purposes,” including rifles of .50 caliber or greater. 

It will also ban the transfer of tactical vehicles, including MRAPs, armored drones, and stun grenades. 

“Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M-16s,” Representative Johnson said in a statement. “Unfortunately,” he added, “our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces.” 

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