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Pentagon Program Under Scrutiny Amid Ferguson Crisis

Police advance to clear the crowd, Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 18, 2014

Police advance to clear the crowd, Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 18, 2014

It's an unusual scene in the United States. Protesters in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, angered by the shooting of an unarmed teen, are confronted by police with armored vehicles and holding assault rifles. Now, a Department of Defense program that gives military equipment to local law enforcement agencies has come under scrutiny.

It's called the Pentagon's Excess Property Program. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby says the Congressionally-mandated system allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies that apply for it.

"We don't push equipment on anybody. This is excess equipment the taxpayers have paid for. And it is made available to law enforcement agencies if they want it and if they qualify for it," said Kirby.

You can find request forms online for everything from aircraft to weapons to combat boots. The Pentagon says it has given police in the town of Ferguson and St. Louis County six pistols, 12 rifles, a bomb disposal robot, three helicopters and seven Humvees.

"These aren't the tools for what Ferguson Police Department and St. Louis County are dealing with," said Jason Fritz,a former Army officer who specializes in international policing operations.

Fritz says that between the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment and weapons are available to local police forces. But what's scary, he says, is that they are getting no training for these lethal tools. He calls the program irresponsible.

"It's very dangerous and it goes against all best practices," he said. "We even consider just giving the equipment and a couple weeks training course on how to use it to be the low bar on how to do that. And that's really not even preferential. You need to build it into a training program that really is more holistic than 'here is this piece of equipment and here is exactly how you use it.' In what contact do you use it? Why and how is it appropriate in your community?"

Pentagon spokesman Kirby says the Department of Defense does not take a position on how local police use their equipment.

"We don't legislate. We don't dictate. We don't mandate any kind of certain use," he said.

Kirby told reporters Tuesday that while all eyes are on the situation in Ferguson, people should not forget that several law enforcement agencies say this program saves lives and protects civilians.

"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. There is," he said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is studying the congressionally-mandated program. But, as of now, he has not ordered an official review.

A spokesman for Congressman William "Lacy" Clay, who represents St. Louis County, says the lawmaker will meet with Hagel to discuss concerns about using military equipment without proper training.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.