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White House orders review of programs supplying military gear to law enforcement

Police in Ferguson, Missouri
Police in Ferguson, Missouri

It was announced yesterday that the White House will conduct its own review of programs that have supplied law enforcement agencies with military equipment, the Los Angeles Times reports. A senior official in the Obama administration stated that the review will attempt to determine the efficacy of federal programs currently supplying law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment. In addition to deciding on more effective methods of oversight, the White House will investigate whether police personnel were provided appropriate training prior to using certain military-grade gear.

The review, ordered by President Barack Obama, follows congressional movement on the issue this past week, including calls for preemptive legislation restricting the access police departments can have to military gear. The White House will work together with Congress, as well as multiple federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, in conducting the review.

Programs like DoD 1033, or the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, have been on the books for years, some going back to the 1990s. The impetus of such measures was to aid underfunded and understaffed police departments by way of the disbursement of unused military resources. In most cases, these resources amounted to non-tactical sundry like weather-resistant apparel, protective goggles, flashlights and first aid kits. Since 9/11, however, some have noticed an under-regulated and disturbing trend in which billions of dollars, much of it funneled through grant programs facilitated by the Department of Homeland Security, have been used to procure “military-style” tactical gear for local police departments and state law enforcement agencies.

The specific intention behind these post-9/11 grants was to outfit local, first-line defenses against terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Lack of oversight, however, has prevented the federal government from ensuring that this intention was the guiding principle in how police departments spent these billions of dollars in grant funds. This says nothing as to how much training, if any, accompanied the purchase by law enforcement agencies of certain military items such as grenade launchers, armored vehicles and assault rifles.

This issue of the so-called “militarization of police” has moved into the foreground subsequent to the response of Ferguson and St. Louis County Police Departments to protests over the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri. Questions as to whether it was necessary that police personnel in Ferguson, in order to confront civil unrest, were outfitted as they were and whether the military equipment with which they were outfitted was used appropriately have largely been answered with hedging, confusion and equivocation by officials. That this is the case is likely, in part, the reluctance of anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or at the state and local levels, to ultimately take the blame for the abuse of programs that seem to have been running on autopilot for over a decade.

“[There is] a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred," the President stated recently in a press conference. To some, this is a line that has yet to be blurred, although the actions of police in Missouri in the past few weeks demand that oversight is immediately required if military equipment is being issued to personnel unfit for its use. “These guys are idiots,” said one Pentagon official, speaking anonymously in reference to Ferguson law enforcement during the unrest. “Don’t tell me that’s militarization – our troops would never do that stuff, even in a war zone.”