Should U.S. police get free military equipment? Protests revive debate

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – In cities across the United States this past week, protesters have been confronted by police carrying shields and batons and hulking armored vehicles that might look to some people like a scene straight out of a war zone.

A U.S. law allows the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment to city and state law enforcement agencies across the country. The equipment given away has either been turned in by military units or held in reserve stocks until no longer needed.

Widespread protests against racial inequalities and excessive use of force by police following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis with a white policeman’s knee on his neck have revived a debate about equipment and tactics used by police around the United States that critics say should be confined to a battlefield. Several U.S. senators are calling for an end to the Pentagon program.

At a protest in Manhattan’s West Village on Tuesday, Erin Ebbitt, 28, held a sign that read: “Demilitarize the police.”

“They don’t need all that military gear,” Ebbitt said. “It creates this mindset of ‘I’m going into a warzone’ in situations where that isn’t the case.”

More than $7.2 billion worth of equipment has been given away over the past couple of decades, including $293 million worth of property last year, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency website. It also said some 8,000 law enforcement agencies are enrolled.

Supporters of the program tout it as useful. Police used such equipment to find the 2013 Boston marathon bombers and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said helmets and body armor from the program saved a police officer during the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is also president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the national debate should not be around the use of military equipment, but on the policies over use of such equipment, training and supervision.

“For the first time in our history we have an opportunity to really make change like we’ve never made it before. George Floyd’s death has really touched a nerve like we have not seen,” Acevedo told Reuters.

Former President Barack Obama curtailed the program in 2015 after law enforcement officers using military-style armored vehicles and guns confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 following the fatal police shooting of a black teenager.

President Donald Trump revoked Obama’s decision in 2017.

‘WE MUST END IT’

Items shipped to civilian police around the country between January and March this year included 30 mine resistant vehicles worth about $700,000 each, as well as trucks, computer monitors, electrical tape and even pouches to carry grenades, according to Pentagon disclosures on the property transfer program.

“The response to the protests has been a militarized response out of the gate, from surveillance to the weaponry, the tactics to the aggressiveness,” said John Raphling, a senior researcher on criminal justice for Human Rights Watch.

Police across the United States are using a variety of weapons on protesters. Often described as “non-lethal,” these weapons include tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. They have sometimes seriously injured protesters.

“Police are a militarized institution by their nature. We should not be responding to our societal problems with a military approach,” Raphling said.

In the wake of the Ferguson protests Obama created a task force that recommended in 2015 that law enforcement agencies create policies for demonstrations “designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.”

Obama at a town hall meeting on Wednesday urged local leaders to implement the recommendations of the taskforce.

Trump had threatened to use the U.S. military to halt violence and looting that has spread to several cities.

“President Trump is once again wrong and dangerous in urging yet more military deployment and tactics,” the American Civil Liberties Union posted on Twitter on Sunday, adding that policing in America was already “excessively militarized.”

Democratic senators say they will pursue a legislative amendment to discontinue the program.

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen said on Twitter this week that the program “contributed to the militarization of our police departments – leading to tanks on our streets, the erosion of police-community relations, and the escalation of violence … we must end it.”

Additional reporting by Chris Sanders and Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft

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