WASHINGTON — The Missouri police department at the center of an uproar over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager acquired two armored Humvees and other military gear for free through a Pentagon program that critics blame for “militarizing America’s Main Streets” and aggravating clashes between police and protesters.
The Ferguson Police Department received the two Humvees as well as a generator and a flatbed trailer under the surplus equipment program run by the Defense Logistics Agency, which is in charge of getting supplies of all types for the military.
News footage and photos of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in Ferguson — a largely black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force — have provided new impetus to efforts to rein in the Pentagon program. It provides assault weapons and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee will review the program to determine if the Defense Department surplus is being used as intended.
The program began in 1990 as a way to help states and local agencies fight drug-related crime. It was expanded in the mid-1990s.
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Levin said in a statement Friday. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents.”
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police across the country. Police responding to protesters angry about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles, sometimes pointing assault rifles at protesters.
“Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson said in a statement. “Militarizing America’s Main Streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent.”
A spokeswoman for the logistics agency said its Law Enforcement Support Office distributed nearly $450 million worth of equipment last year ranging from blankets and computers to armored vehicles, boats and assault weapons. About 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in the program, known as 1033 for its section in the National Defense Authorization Act, said spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill.
Weapons account for just 5 percent of the equipment distributed, McCaskill said.
St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, has received a dozen 5.56mm rifles, half a dozen .45-caliber pistols, night-vision goggles and a bomb-disposing robot in recent years, the defense agency said.
The 1033 program is just one of the federal programs that provide military-style equipment to local police. The Homeland Security Department offers grants for armored vehicles and other equipment. The Justice Department provides grants for rubber bullets, tear gas and other equipment used to control crowds.
Homeland Security grant money paid for the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson, said Nick Gragnani, executive director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, which administers such grants for the St. Louis area.