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How the Pentagon’s distribution of military gear to police is about to tighten again

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

One year after the use of military vehicles and equipment by police in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., prompted questions about how the Pentagon distributes unused gear and weapons to local law enforcement agencies, new guidelines tightening the program will soon take effect.

The impending change stems from the inter-agency Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, which was formed by the White House after President Obama called for a review last summer of programs that distribute military equipment — ranging from rifles to helicopters — to law enforcement agencies across the United States. The program was seen as way to make use of equipment the military no longer needed, but it led to criticism that some police departments were becoming militarized and overly aggressive.

The plan focuses in part on the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, often known as the 1033 Program. It has distributed more than $5.1 billion in military equipment to some 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies since it was established in 1997.

[Military veterans see deeply flawed response to protests in Ferguson]

The Obama administration announced in May that it would not provide certain kinds of military equipment to police departments, including tracked vehicles, any aircraft, vessel or vehicle with a weapon installed on it, firearms larger than .50-caliber in size and grenade launchers. But other restrictions will take effect Oct. 1, at the beginning of fiscal 2016.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the program, told The Washington Post that the Defense Department will meet with state coordinators of the 1033 Program later this month to brief them on other changes that have been made. They include requiring detailed justifications for certain kinds of “controlled” equipment, certifying that the necessary training is in place and providing evidence that a local civilian governing body also has seen the request and approves.

The program came under heavy scrutiny after heavily armed police in Ferguson began using military-grade equipment a year ago to subdue crowds following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. Their tactics were 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.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, then the Pentagon press secretary, defended the 1033 Program last summer, saying it has assisted police across the country with 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 at the time. “There is. And it’s well thought-out.”

[Pentagon defends program providing military gear to Ferguson police]

According to new guidelines released by the White House in May, written justifications will be needed to transfer items on a controlled equipment list. Equipment on it includes wheeled tactical vehicles like Humvees, riot gear, and a variety of firearms. The new rules were to be effective Oct. 1, the guidelines also said.

The Ferguson Police Department is already facing restrictions under the program. As first reported by The Guardian this week, the department obtained two Humvees through the 1033 Program, and then added an additional two that were distributed by state coordinators without proper Pentagon approval, said Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. The last two Humvees will have to be returned.