Pentagon drawn into Ferguson police militarization debate

Posted at 9:40 AM, Aug 19, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-19 09:48:06-04

WASHINGTON (CNN) – The sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the law enforcement response has sparked a debate about what some call the “militarization of police,” after armored vehicles, stun grenades and high-tech weaponry were brought in to calm the violence.

Some of the equipment may be military surplus that came from the government, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is asking his staff to provide him with more information on that program.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Hagel “wants to have an informed opinion going forward” about the program that provides military surplus to local police departments across the country.

Kirby emphasized that at this point, the Pentagon is not engaged in a full review. But Hagel wants a better understanding of the law and regulations governing the transfer program and he wants to know what parts of that program the Defense Department is responsible for and controls.

The program has been in place for several years with little controversy and attention, but has grabbed the national spotlight with the unrest in Ferguson, where police have used what looks like tactical military gear and vehicles, although it’s not clear what equipment may have actually come from Pentagon inventories.

Pentagon officials say a key issue for the department is the fact that once the equipment is transferred, the military has no control over how a local agency uses it.

Many police departments also get funding for military-style equipment from Homeland Security and the Justice Department, which operate programs aimed at beefing up police capability in the event of a terrorist attack.

President Barack Obama called for a review of the program on Monday. “I think it’s probably useful for to us review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars to make sure that what they are purchasing is stuff that they actually need. Because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred, that would be contrary to our traditions and I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, said his committee would “review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.”