Los Angeles County Sheriff's SWAT team members ride an armored car in 2013. (Kevork Djansezian/ / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Some items built for combat but often transferred to local law enforcement has no business on American streets, a House Armed Services Committee member who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is telling Pentagon leaders.
Unrest began last week in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of an African-American teenager by a white police officer, which also sparked discussion about the militarization of US police forces. As protests turned into looting there, local law enforcement officials deployed heavy armored vehicles, combat-grade rifles and other equipment.
Images of Ferguson Police and St. Louis County Police officers dressed in tactical vests, pointing combat rifles at protesters and wearing camouflage much like that worn by US military forces set off a national — sometimes global — debate about the “Section 1033” program.
That’s the initiative set up in the 1990s for the so-called “war on drugs” to give local police “surplus” military gear; the program’s transfers accelerated after the 9/11 attacks, according to government and independent reviews.
Experts say police officers who lack the proper training on when and how to use the military gear can create anger and backlash like that fueling the situation in Ferguson.
The Senate Armed Services Committee intends to hold a hearing on the program next month. But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran now serving on HASC, is telling Pentagon brass that some transfers of items “designed and manufactured for battlefield application” have no place on the streets of America’s heartland.
“In some cases, excess military equipment has a practical use for state and local law enforcement agencies and it remains in the best interests of taxpayers to deliver excess equipment,” Hunter wrote in a letter, obtained by CongressWatch, sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday. “However, there should be some limitations on the type of equipment available.
“Based on my own experience, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer, it is difficult to comprehend a suitable community application for resources such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, tracked vehicles and light-armored vehicles.”
Hunter told Hagel he is concerned that, under the 1033 program, military officials lose the ability to know just how local law enforcement entities are using certain transferred items.
For that reason and others, Hunter wants Hagel to conduct “a comprehensive review of the program in order to guarantee that law enforcement agencies are receiving the most suitable equipment for their needs. Hunter wants such a review to “ascertain if specific resources should be withheld.”
The Pentagon has said Hagel is looking at the transfer program, under which the Congressional Research Service says $4.2 billion in military equipment has been shipped to local police.
The transferred items, according to a June American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, include armored personnel carriers, stun grenades, battering rams and other military items. Other independent organizations this week have added military rifles, soldier kits, night-vision goggles, ammunition and other items to that list.
In the early 1990s, lawmakers made it easier for local law enforcement agencies to acquire military-grade items via something very familiar to the US defense sector: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Another source of funds that has helped local law enforcement agencies acquire military-like gear is a Department of Homeland Security grant program established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress has repeatedly blessed that program.
Lawmakers easily approved the 1991 NDAA, which included section 1208. That provision was titled “transfer of excess personal property” and was intended to help in that decade’s “war on drugs.”
The section allowed the defense secretary to “transfer to federal and state agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the secretary determines is ... (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.”
That 1991 provision mandated that any US military equipment shipped to localities be done so “without cost to the recipient agency.” Later, the program became “Section 1033,” but its purpose remained unchanged.
The Defense Logistics Agency manages the transfer program through its Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). The office published a newsletter in October 2011 featuring this tagline: “from warfighter to crimefighter,” which has drawn fire in recent days from a broad coalition of civil libertarians, local officials, national lawmakers and pundits of all political stripes — and the protesters in Ferguson. ■