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Drawing On Pentagon Surplus, Police Now Wield Weapons Of War


In Ferguson, Missouri, this week, police have been more than well-armed. They were equipped with military-style weapons. This show of force to control crowds has drawn angry criticism from protesters. But the use of military equipment by police isn't unique to Ferguson. It reflects a broader trend nationwide.

Many call it the militarization of law enforcement and a lot of that equipment comes from the Pentagon. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth every year is sent to police and sheriff's departments, all in the name of fighting drugs and terrorism.

NPR national security correspondent David Welna joins me now to talk more about this. And, David, why is the Pentagon providing state and local police departments with the equipment that was originally purchased for fighting wars?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, this is actually something that's been going on since the end of the Reagan administration. That was when Congress first authorized the Defense Department to transfer surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies.

And it was all done as part of the so-called war on drugs. And then Congress expanded the scope of the program in 1996 to include counter-terrorism. And it's gone from initially transferring about a million dollars worth of equipment annually to, last year, giving law enforcement agencies $450 million worth of materials.

BLOCK: And we've seen the images from Ferguson, David - armored tactical vehicles out in the streets. What other kinds of things are police and sheriff's departments getting through this program?

WELNA: Well, it's a wide range of things. They have everything from file cabinets and photocopiers to handcuffs, riot shields and bayonets to weapons of war, such as M-16 and M-14 assault rifles.

They're also transferring a lot of military vehicles, ranging from Humvees to armored tactical vehicles, including some 600 mine-resistant ambush protected, or MRAP, vehicles. These were used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they were meant to protect them from IEDs. We're talking about vehicles worth about half a million dollars when new. And in fact, more than a third of everything that gets transferred, according to the Pentagon, has never even been used.

BLOCK: And as you say, David, $450 million worth of equipment in the last year alone. How many police departments are getting it?

WELNA: Well, it's very widespread. The Defense Logistics Agency, which administers the program, says that in the last 17 years, it's transferred more than $5 billion worth of equipment to more than 8,000 agencies, though outside estimates, including one from ACLU, say, it's more than 17,000 agencies actually getting this material.

This is all considered surplus. All that those who receive that have to do is just pay for the shipping and maintenance. Interestingly, the logo of the Law Enforcement Support Office, which takes requests for these transfers, is from warfighters to crimefighters.

BLOCK: David, I have been reading about some local law enforcement agencies who've said, look ,we don't want this stuff. We do not want to militarize our police force.

WELNA: Yes. In fact, just in the last month, a plan for the sheriff's department in Bergen County, New Jersey, to receive two MRAPs got scotched after county executives complained the people there were losing their way if they were talking about putting combat vehicles on the streets.

The sheriff defended getting the vehicles, saying, the county police had already gotten two of them, so his force should get them, as well. And in Utah, which is one of the major recipients of military surplus, the police chief in Salt Lake City has spoken out against militarizing his force.

BLOCK: And, David, you mentioned that the original purpose of this program goes back to the Reagan administration and the war on drugs. Has the program got grown well beyond that original intent?

WELNA: It definitely appears to go beyond just drug enforcement, though a lot of it is used for that, as well. One of the stipulations for getting this equipment transferred is that it'd be used within a year of receipt. It's a kind of use it or lose it policy. And that gives law enforcement agencies a real incentive to put these military weapons and vehicles to use in things such as crowd control, as we saw in Ferguson. There are a lot of questions from civil liberties advocates about accountability for the use of this military surplus equipment. There's very limited information about what exactly it's all being used for and why.

BLOCK: That's NPR national security correspondent David Welna. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.