Pentagon defends program supplying military gear to Ferguson police


A police officer points a spotlight at a group of demonstrators during protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near Ferguson, Mo., on Monday night. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters after days of unrest sparked by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Pentagon’s top spokesman on Tuesday defended the program under which the Defense Department has sent military equipment to police departments across the country, including Ferguson, Mo., where clashes between police and civilians have continued 10 days after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man.

The Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, sometimes known as the 1033 Program, has supplied police departments across the country with more than $4.3 billion in gear since 1997, including $449 million in 2013. Its use in Ferguson has come under scrutiny by civil rights advocates, but Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the program also has assisted police across the United States in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations that “get right to the protection of the homeland.”

“I want to make sure that it’s clear that this isn’t some program run amok here, or that there isn’t proper accountability,” Kirby said. “There is. And it’s well thought-out.”

The program has been under scrutiny since heavily armed — and armored — police in Ferguson began using military-grade equipment to subdue crowds following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Their tactics have been criticized as heavy-handed by civil rights advocates and some military veterans who say they weren’t able to respond as aggressively as police in Ferguson while deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Obama left the door open on Monday to reexamining federal programs that fund and equip local police departments, raising questions whether the 1033 Program could eventually be altered. But Kirby said Tuesday that while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has asked his staff for more information on it, he has not ordered a review of it.

Kirby said Tuesday that “there’s a lot of due diligence” that goes into deciding which police forces get which equipment. The Pentagon doesn’t push its excess equipment on police either, he said.

“I won’t speak for law enforcement. But my hunch is that many of these agencies out there would tell you that some of this equipment saves lives and protects citizens,” Kirby said. “And so while we’re all focused on what’s going on in Ferguson — as we should be, and I understand that — let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. And it’s a congressionally-mandated program, a program that has provided a good measure of support to not just law enforcement, but to citizens all over the country.”

The Pentagon has the right to stop deliveries of military equipment to local police or to take back what it is has provided if it finds that departments do not keep proper inventory, Kirby said. But he said he wasn’t sure if the federal government could take it back materiel if it wasn’t happy with the way it was being used.

“We do not legislate, we don’t dictate, we don’t — we don’t mandate any kind of certain use,” Kirby said. “That is up to local law enforcement.”

Since 2007, the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency has transferred two Humvees, one generator and one cargo trailer to the Ferguson Police Department, Kirby said. The larger St. Louis County Police Department, which also provides police in Ferguson, has received six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, three helicopters, seven Humvees, two night-vision devices and a bomb disposal robot, Kirby said.

Nationally, the Pentagon has sent weapons and equipment ranging from armored personnel carriers to helicopters to local police departments.

Police in Ferguson said early Tuesday that officers came under “heavy gunfire,” and made 31 arrests. Two people were shot, but police did not open fire and were not injured.

Previously on Checkpoint:
Military gear beyond Ferguson: A look at how the Pentagon’s equipment has spread

Military veterans see deeply flawed police response in Ferguson

Video: Breaking down the military gear used by Ferguson police

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · August 19