Pentagon struggles to defend 'militarization' of police forces

The Pentagon is pushing back against the notion that their 1033 program is 'militarizing' local police forces. But officers there acknowledge that some police departments have misused some equipment more suited for combat.

Jason Wachter/The St. Cloud Times/AP
Police use a military grade vehicle during a standoff in St. Cloud, Minn., in April. A debate about the militarization of police forces has been renewed in light of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

When local police responded to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., wearing camouflaged fatigues and riding atop turreted armored vehicles – pointing heavy weapons at their fellow US citizens who were angry at the shooting death of an African American teenager – many troops at the Pentagon shook their heads in a mixture of alarm and frustration.

The Defense Department’s 1033 program to provide surplus military equipment to police departments across the country was under fire for contributing to the “militarization” of local police departments which, critics said, had no business possessing grenade launchers, powerful military-grade rifles, and armored vehicles that appeared to be kitted out for a war zone against small-town Americans.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D) of Michigan has vowed to investigate the matter. When Congress returns from recess next month, Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia plans to propose legislation to restrict weapons provided to police departments.

Inside the Pentagon, meanwhile, the Ferguson Police Department’s misuse of this weaponry has been as frustrating to defense officials as it has been for many critics. 

“These guys are idiots – riding around on the top of armored trucks looking like rednecks on a country drive, pointing their weapons at unarmed Americans,” said one Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his opinion on the matter.

“Don’t tell me that’s militarization – our troops would never do that stuff, even in a war zone,” he says. “And why are they riding around in woodlands camo in a city? That kills me.”

The town of Ferguson is located in St. Louis County, an area that’s just over 500 square miles with a population of about one million. Ferguson, by contrast, is about six square miles with a population of 21,000.

Through the 1033 program, the entire country of St. Louis has received a dozen M-16 rifles for their SWAT teams, six old Colt .45 pistols, seven Humvees, and three helicopters, according to Department of Defense figures.

“And that has made you into a bunch of Rambos? Really?” the Pentagon official adds.

Most of the armored vehicles shown in news footage – and decried by critics – were actually commercially-purchased BearCats, the kind of vehicles that banks use for armored cars, defense officials note.

Yet pushing back against critics of the 1033 program was an ongoing struggle for the Pentagon this week. Still, officials tried.

“Well, it is up to local law enforcement to determine how and when and where and under what circumstances they want to use excess military equipment,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary, during a briefing with reporters.

That said, “Many, many law enforcement agencies have benefited from it,” he added. “In fact, many citizens of many towns and cities all over the country have benefited from it.”

These benefits include tents, computers, office furniture, cleaning kits, boats, and first-aid kits, say Pentagon officials, who add that “95 percent of the stuff we give out is not weapons.” 

And there are military surplus items that are banned from being shared under the 1033 program, including, for example, M1 Abrams Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Apache helicopters, and .50 caliber machine guns.

“That’s way too much fire power – they couldn’t have it,” says the Pentagon officials. “Our guys would say, ‘No, that’s stupid. No, you can’t have a tank. Go away.”

More controversially, the 1033 program has included giving out over 600 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to police. 

In letters to the Pentagon in which they petition for the vehicles, police departments in flood zones, for example, say they would attach winches to them and use them to clear fallen logs and trees. MRAPS can also protect police in a hostage situation, Pentagon officials point out.

“The MRAP is by nature a defensive vehicle. A lot of our military equipment has been used to save lives, to take down real bad guys, to rescue people, to protect people,” the official says.

Yet officials acknowledge, too, that the weapons provided to police forces should be carefully monitored. “Can you abuse this [1033] program? Yes. Has it been abused? Yes,” adds the officials. “We need to take the ones who are doing that and retrain them on how to use this stuff properly.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is looking into this possibility. “The secretary has been mindful of the public debate and discussion about this issue,” Rear Admiral Kirby said. 

“He has been given an information paper that provides some more detail to it,” Kirby added. “And he’s consuming that now.”  

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