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Police in Ferguson, Mo., used military-grade equipment to quell protests this month.

RICHARD PERRY • New York Times,

U.S. to review arming of cops

  • Article by: MATT APUZZO and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
  • New York Times
  • August 25, 2014 - 10:40 AM

– Jolted by images of protesters clashing with heavily armed police officers in Missouri, President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of the government’s decade-old strategy of outfitting local police departments with military-grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles, senior officials said.

The White House-led review will consider whether the government should continue providing such equipment and, if so, whether local authorities have sufficient training to use it appropriately, said senior administration and law enforcement officials. The government will also consider whether it is keeping a close enough watch on equipment inventories, and how the weapons and other gear are used.

The review, coupled with proposed legislation and planned congressional hearings, opens the possibility for significant changes in Washington’s approach to arming local law agencies. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government regarded the police as the front-line forces in a new war. While that role for local law enforcement is expected to remain, changes may be ordered to the system under which federal grants and a military surplus program have sent gear and money to police departments, often with no strings attached, to prepare for a terrorist attack.

‘All of us uncomfortable’

America got a glimpse of that gear over the past two weeks in Ferguson, Mo., as police officers in full body armor rode military-style vehicles, firing tear gas and pointing assault rifles at protesters. Like departments nationwide, the police in the St. Louis area have been outfitted by federal grants and military surplus.

“The whole country and every representative and senator have seen the visuals, and at some level, it made all of us uncomfortable,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who will lead a hearing into police use of military-style equipment next month. “It’s a moment where we can take a timeout and look at these policies.”

Such reviews would have been unlikely in Washington before the Ferguson protests, which followed the shooting death of an unarmed teenager by a police officer. For years, internal audits have raised concerns about the management and oversight of federal grants, but nothing until now has prompted the government to question the programs.

After 9/11, the government pushed billions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies through the Department of Justice and the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The grants paid for radios that allowed local police and fire officials to talk to each other during a crisis. Grants placed lifesaving equipment in ambulances and hospitals.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a statement released by his office Saturday, said this equipment “flowed to local police forces because they were increasingly being asked to assist in counterterrorism.” But he also said that “displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive,” and so “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.”

Laptops to body armor

For police departments, the money has paid for computers, armored vehicles, body armor, weapons, training and more. In Washington, the only debates were whether the George W. Bush administration was providing equipment fast enough, and whether departments were getting their fair shares.

But the rush to arm police departments made oversight difficult. Grant programs overlapped. Money often flowed to state governments first before arriving in local police departments, making it hard to track. In 2009, auditors cited examples of state governments that could not verify what equipment local authorities had bought.

The federal government also did not typically insist that local authorities be trained on how and when to use its new equipment.

Administration and law enforcement officials said the White House review would include an examination of training requirements.

Though violent crime is at its lowest level in a generation and terrorism remains exceedingly rare on U.S. soil, any effort to significantly cut police funding would be met with opposition from local and state officials. Even if the will to review policies exists now, it is not clear whether it will remain when lawmakers return from vacation and see elections on the horizon.

McCaskill agreed that the military equipment had proved valuable. In Ferguson, she said, a BearCat armored truck — paid for with $360,000 in Homeland Security grants — helped the police escape harm amid gunfire. And while she was critical of the police response, she said no police officer had fired lethal weapons on protesters, even when people in the crowd were firing.

Still, McCaskill said, the government should be able to find a way to ensure officer safety and keep streets safe more strategically. She said one alternative to the current system would be to store military equipment with the National Guard and allow the police to use it only when needed.

© 2014 Star Tribune