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US rethinks giving excess military gear to police

By Eric Tucker

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 8:27 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 8:27 a.m. MDT

In this July 6, 2013 still frame from a video produced by the Los Angeles Police Department, officers fire blank rounds from a helicopter in a drill simulating a terrorist attack in downtown Los Angeles. After spending a decade sending military equipment to civilian police departments across the United States, Washington is reconsidering the idea in light of the violence in Ferguson, Mo., amid images of heavily-armed police, snipers trained on protesters and tear gas plumes. One night after the violence that accompanied the presence of military-style equipment in Ferguson, the crowd calmed considerably when a police captain walked through the crowd, unprotected, in a gesture of reconciliation. The contrast added to the perception that the tanks and tear gas had done more harm than good.

Los Angeles Police Department, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After a decade of sending military equipment to civilian police departments across the country, federal officials are reconsidering the idea in light of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

The public has absorbed images of heavily armed police, snipers trained on protesters and tear gas plumes. Against that backdrop, Attorney General Eric Holder said that when police and citizens need to restore calm, "I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said police responses like that in Ferguson have "become the problem instead of the solution." Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said he will introduce legislation to reverse police militarization.

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's surplus equipment is being used as intended.

One night after the violence that accompanied the presence of military-style equipment in Ferguson, tensions eased when a police captain, unprotected and shaking hands, walked through a crowd in a gesture of reconciliation. The contrast added to perception that the tanks and tear gas had done more harm than good.

As the country concludes its longest wartime period, the military has turned over thousands of surplus weapons and armored trucks to local police who often trained alongside the military.

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in June said police agencies had become "excessively militarized," with officers using training and equipment designed for the battlefield on city streets. The report found the amount of goods transferred through the military surplus program rose from $1 million in 1990 to nearly $450 million in 2013.

"Every police force of any size in this country has access to those kinds of weapons now," said David Harris, a police expert at the University of Pittsburgh law school. "It makes it more likely to be used (and) is an escalation all by itself."

In Louisiana, masked police in full body armor carrying AR-15 assault rifles raided a nightclub without a warrant, looking not for terrorists but underage drinkers and fire-code violations. Officers in California train using the same counterinsurgency tactics as those used in Afghanistan.

"They're not coming in like we're innocent until proven guilty," said Quinn Eaker. SWAT teams last August raided his organic farm and community, the Garden of Eden, in Arlington, Texas. "They're coming in like: 'We're gonna kill you if you move a finger.'"

Police found no drugs or weapons and filed no charges after their search, which authorities said followed standard procedure.

In 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to give surplus equipment to police to help fight drugs, which then gave way to the fight against terrorism. Though violent crime nationwide is at its lowest level in generations and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely concluded, the military transfers have increased.

Police say the equipment, which includes free body armor, night vision goggles and scopes, keeps officers safe and prepares them for the worst case.

"A lot evolved from the military, no question," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief Bill McSweeney, who heads the detective division. "Is it smart for them to use that stuff and perhaps look like soldiers from Iraq going into a place? Is that smart or over the top? I'd say generally that's smart. Now, if you use that every time a guy is writing bad checks, that's getting rather extreme."

The U.S. has provided 610 mine-resistant armored trucks, known as MRAPs, across the country, nearly all since August 2013, including at least nine in Los Angeles County, according to Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.

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