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Most Pentagon equipment given to local police is not military, official says

Alan F. Estevez, principal deputy under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: September 9, 2014

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Just 4 percent of equipment given to local law enforcement agencies under a Pentagon surplus program has "military attributes," a Department of Defense logistics official said Tuesday.

Testifying before the Senate Committee on Homeland and Government Affairs, Alan F. Estevez, said a vast majority of the equipment transferred to local police is "non-controlled property," such as commercial vehicles, office furniture and supplies, generators, tents, tarps, tool kits, first-aid kits, blankets, vehicle maintenance equipment, and even forklifts. About 4 percent is military-style equipment, he said.

Estevez said that more than 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies in 49 states have received property under the program, and that it would have cost the local agencies about $5.1 billion had they had to go out and buy it.

Estevez said that such equipment is "conditionally loaned" to the local police departments and is returned to the Department of Defense for "demilitarization at the end of its useful life."

The Pentagon "maintains accountability over all conditionally loaned equipment and may recall this property at any time," Estevez said in prepared remarks. He is principal deputy under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

The hearing was called by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Some, including McCaskill, criticized what they said was the "militarization of the police response to peaceful demonstrations and violence in the aftermath.

McCaskill said she was concerned that peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson were "transformed with vivid images, powerful images, into a war zone, complete with camouflage, tear gas, rubber bullets, armored, vehicles and laser sights on assault weapons."

She added: "Lawful protesters ... did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants."

McCaskill also said she had personally witnessed an armored vehicle rescue police in a dangerous situation in Ferguson, and she also said she believed that some of the federal aid to local law enforcement had been used properly.

But she produced figures that raised oversight questions. While local police departments in Texas have gotten 73 surplus Mine Resistant Ambush Protected — or MRAP — military assault vehicles, the state's National Guard had only gotten six, she said. One Michigan town with one full-time police officer received 13 assault rifles, she said.

"How in the world can anyone say this program has oversight?" McCaskill asked.

Estevez, the Pentagon's logistics official, said he would look into those situations, and that the Pentagon would try to do a better job of oversight. But he also reminded senators of the reason why the surplus program was begun in the 1990s. Many police forces, he said, were "outgunned" by violent drug gangs.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., elevated the hearing to the full committee. And it attracted heavy attention. The American Civil Liberties Union passed out a thick document to assembled press, entitled, "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing."

Even before the hearing began, as senators were assembling for the hearing, protesters from the anti-war organization, Code Pink, stood up and began exhorting the committee to crack down on the program, called 1033.

"We need the tanks off our streets," one said. They held pink signs saying the same thing.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he believed there had been an "overreaction" among local law enforcement agencies in the wake of 9-11. "I have some real heartburn with not just the 1033 program," but with other federal programs designed to help local police bulk up after 9-11.

McCaskill acknowledged that much of the equipment given to local law enforcement was non-military, but she also criticized the Pentagon for giving away large, military-assault vehicles to tiny police departments. Thirteen communities with 10 or fewer police officers were given MRAP military assault vehicles over the last three years, she said.

Jim Bueerman, president of the Police Foundation, a non-partisan police research organization, was expected to tell the committee that his organization proposed changes in the 1033 program that would require more public input and a publicly accessible policy governing the use of armored vehicles and tactical units.

"The Department of Defense does not push any equipment on a police force," Estevez said. And he said that despite the criticism by McCaskill and others, the surplus equipment sent to local law enforcement has saved lives.

"During Superstorm Sandy, Jersey Shore police drove two cargo trucks and three (heavy military vehicles) through water too deep for commercial vehicles to save 64 people," Estevez said. "Also during Sandy, police in New York used aircraft received through the program to fly rescue personnel and first-responder supplies to remote areas. Indiana police used an excess Coast Guard watercraft in its operation to interdict a major drug trafficking ring along Lake Michigan."

Brian E. Kamoie, assistant administrator for grant programs in the Department of Homeland Security, said that while the show of force by local police in Ferguson raised legitimate debate, senators should not forget that Homeland Security and other anti-terrorism grants to local law enforcement have given them the ability to respond to crises, such as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

"Many of the capabilities demonstrated in Boston were built, enhanced, or sustained with funds made available through (Homeland Security's) preparedness grant programs," he said. The state-of-the-art equipment purchased through it, he said, "saved lives and restored and ensured public safety in the aftermath" of the bombing.

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, said that "it is important to remember that police body armor is not the same as the tactical armor worn by military forces in combat.

"Rather, it comprises the protective vests worn on a routine basis by officers across the United States," Mason said. And that body, armor, she said, has saved 3,100 officers' lives since its introduction in the 1970s.

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