The startling scenes this week of heavily armed police clashing with protesters in a St. Louis suburb have galvanized a bipartisan push in Washington to challenge a controversial Pentagon program that gives away free military gear to local law enforcement.
Concerns about the so-called “militarization” of local police have been simmering for some time. But the clashes in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of an unarmed black teenager illustrated precisely what lawmakers have been worried about – police using a “military response” to subdue civilian riots and protests, and potentially escalating the situation in the process.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., warned in an op-ed that the scenes from Ferguson – which has since settled somewhat after state Highway Patrol took over security – resembled “war more than traditional police action.”
The concerns over heavily armed police have brought together a complex cross-section of libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats in the same way as recent controversies over drones and National Security Agency snooping.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said he plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb this type of gear build-up for local police forces.
“Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson said Thursday. “Militarizing America’s Main Streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent.”
Not all the equipment is war-style gear. The program transfers everything from copiers to fax machines to filing cabinets.
But it also transfers M-16s and heavy-duty tactical vehicles – two of those, both Humvees, ended up in the hands of the Ferguson Police Department.
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