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WASHINGTON (AP) — Images of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in suburban St. Louis are giving new impetus to efforts to rein in a Pentagon program that provides free machine guns and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., says he plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police agencies across the country. Police responding to protesters angry about the weekend shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles.
“Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson said Thursday. “Militarizing America’s Main Streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent.”
A spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency, the government’s combat logistics support agency, said theFerguson Police Department has been part of the surplus equipment program. The department received two tactical vehicles — both Humvees — as well as a generator and a trailer and may have received other equipment, DLA spokesman Joe Yoswa said.
Johnson said his bill would limit the kinds of military equipment that can be transferred to local law enforcement agencies and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.
He said he is disturbed by reports that some weapons and other equipment distributed to police agencies have gone missing. He also expressed concern that the trend toward militarizing has moved beyond local police departments and sheriff’s offices, saying Ohio State University recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP.
Johnson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, cites a 24-year-old program that lets local police agencies acquire for free surplus military equipment ranging from blankets and bayonets to tanks. An Associated Press investigation last year found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed by the program since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the program as useful because “it allows for the reuse of military equipment that otherwise would be disposed of.”
Threatening civilians with military equipment is "useful"?