WASHINGTON — The Missouri police department at the center of an uproar over the shooting death of an unarmed black teen-ager acquired two armored Humvees and other military gear for free through a Pentagon program that critics blame for "militarizing America's Main Streets" and aggravating clashes between police and protesters.
The Ferguson Police Department received the two Humvees as well as a generator and a flatbed trailer under the surplus equipment program run by the Defense Logistics Agency, which is in charge of getting supplies of all types for the military.
News footage and photos of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in Ferguson — a largely black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force — have provided new impetus to efforts to rein in the Pentagon program. It provides assault weapons and other surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
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 surplus is being used as intended.
The program began in 1990 as a way to help states and local agencies fight drug-related crime. It was expanded in the mid-1990s.
"Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," Levin said in a statement Friday. "We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents."
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what he describes as an increasing militarization of police across the country. Police responding to protesters angry about the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown wore riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles, sometimes pointing assault rifles at protesters.
"Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s," Johnson said in a statement. "Militarizing America's Main Streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent."
A spokeswoman for the logistics agency said its Law Enforcement Support Office distributed nearly $450 million worth of equipment last year ranging from blankets and computers to armored vehicles, boats and assault weapons. About 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in the program, known as 1033 for its section in the National Defense Authorization Act, said spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill.
Weapons account for just 5 percent of the equipment distributed, McCaskill said.
St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, has received a dozen 5.56mm rifles, half a dozen .45-caliber pistols, night-vision goggles and a bomb-disposing robot in recent years, the defense agency said.
The 1033 program is just one of several federal programs that provide military-style equipment to local police. The Homeland Security Department offers grants for armored vehicles and other equipment, while the Justice Department provides grants for rubber bullets, tear gas and other equipment used to control crowds.
It was not clear Friday whether Ferguson police had received those grants, although St. Louis County has received grants from the Justice Department.
Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the police response in Ferguson is just the latest example of what she called the excessive militarization of policing. Heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics groups, or SWAT teams, are forcing their way into people's homes across the country, often with little justification, she said.
"Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies," said Dansky, the lead author of a June report on the issue.
Militarization encourages officers to adopt a "warrior" mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, Dansky said. The ACLU report outlined a number of examples of equipment transfers that it said were cause for concern. For example, police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, obtained at least 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots capable of being armed and a tactical vehicle. Many of those weapons could not be accounted for later.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he was concerned that use of military equipment by police in Ferguson was sending a "conflicting message."
The response by law enforcement to protests "must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them," Holder said. The Justice Department and FBI are investigating Brown's death.
Johnson said his bill would limit the kinds of military equipment that can be transferred to local police and require states to certify that they can account for all equipment received.
He said he is disturbed by reports that some weapons and other equipment distributed to police have gone missing. He also expressed concern that the militarization trend has moved beyond local police departments and sheriff's offices, saying Ohio State University recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP.
"Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy," Johnson said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a possible GOP presidential contender in 2016, blamed the trend on the federal government.
"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement," Paul wrote in an opinion column in Time magazine.
"There should be a difference between a police response and a military response" Paul said.