Some 26,000 people and counting have signed an online petition calling on President Obama to eliminate a Pentagon program responsible for arming local police departments in towns like Ferguson, Missouri with military equipment like M-16s, MRAPs and armored tanks.
The Defense Department’s 1033 program, which, so far, has authorized the transfer of at least $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police departments across the country, has come under scrutiny in recent days as police officers in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson have been transformed into soldiers on the battlefield.
Courtesy of the 1033 program, Ferguson police officers are donning Kevlar helmets and camouflage fatigues as they attempt to quell the weeklong protests, looting and occasional violence that has erupted over the death of Michael Brown.
The warzone-like images coming out of Ferguson have sparked outrage among the public, with critics and petition-signers saying this kind of thing shouldn’t happen in American cities.
“By militarizing police across the country through the 1033 program, the Pentagon is encouraging local police forces to feel as if they are going into battle with a clear enemy and a shoot-to-kill mentality,” the petition says. “This national militarization of police must be stopped immediately.”
The petition has seen an uptick in signatures since last night, after clashes between protesters and the Ferguson police reached a new level of chaos. The increased violence and unrest led Gov. Jay Nixon to announce that he will bring in the National Guard on Monday.
Meanwhile, the administration, lawmakers and the public continue to raise concerns over the Ferguson police department’s militarized response, and say that it is contributing to the growing unrest.
On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement piling on to those concerns. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Holder said.
Still, others like former New York Police Chief Bernard Kerik defend the program. Kerik said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that the program, which was created to protect law enforcement officers combatting illegal narcotics sales and use, is “absolutely needed.”
Now, with attention focused on the Ferguson police, lawmakers are starting to take a closer look at the DOD program.
Just last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) announced plans to examine the program when Congress returns from August recess.
“Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended,” Levin said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) is planning to introduce legislation that would significantly scale back the program and require states to keep better track of the equipment each police department receives. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is expected to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.
The program has previously faced scrutiny in the past for its lax oversight. Some reports have also raised concerns about whether local police officers are properly trained to handle certain military weapons.
Still, as The National Journal notes, the program has been approved by Congress every year since the mid-1990s and eliminating it is unlikely.
Indeed, Congressional Republican leadership has not made mention of placing the program on the agenda when Congress returns from its five-week recess.
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