A police officer on Wednesday watches over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee says Congress will review Defense Department transfers of unused military equipment to local police to ensure the weaponry is being used “as intended,” in light of the recent problems in Missouri.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement Friday that he will conduct a full review of the equipment transfer rules and procedures before the Senate brings the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill to a full chamber vote next month.
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Levin said. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents.”
But in recent days, that program has come under scrutiny as scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, have shown local police conducting crowd control wielding high-profile rifles and heavy body armor, much of it acquired as military surplus.
On Thursday, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., announced plans to introduce legislation to put limits on the military equipment local police can obtain.
Attorney General Eric Holder said his office is also looking into the issue.
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Holder said in a statement.
In response to questions about the Missouri situation, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby on Thursday acknowledged criticism of the military equipment transfers but called it “a useful program that allows for the reuse of military equipment that otherwise would be disposed of that can be used, again, by law enforcement agencies to serve their citizens.”
He added that how the equipment is used by those departments is the local government’s responsibility, not the Pentagon’s.
The Senate draft of the annual defense authorization bill is expected to be voted on when lawmakers return from their summer break in September. The House already has passed a version of the policy and budget legislation, and the two separate measures would need to be reconciled before they could be signed into law.