The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is being forced by the Obama administration to return two military vehicles that it obtained from the Pentagon, amid widespread concern and criticism over the deployment on American streets of equipment intended for war zones.
The US Department of Defense will reclaim a pair of Humvees that were given to the beleaguered St Louis suburb under a controversial program to distribute surplus weapons, vehicles and other gear, according to several government officials involved in the process.
“They have simply informed us they will be taking them back,” Jeff Small, a spokesman for Ferguson, told the Guardian in an email.
Several Humvees from regional police forces were among the military vehicles seen on the streets of Ferguson last summer as officers cracked down on protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson officer.
The images were seen around the world: protesters clashing with camouflage-clad police who advanced toward their lines in armored trucks and were kitted out like soldiers – wielding assault rifles and firing teargas against emotional but largely peaceful demonstrations.
The heavy-handed police actions were sharply condemned by leaders such as Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s senior US senator, who said at the time they were compounding the problem. “We need to demilitarize this situation,” said McCaskill, who has since led a congressional inquiry into the issue.
Such vehicles returned on Sunday night to West Florissant Avenue , the site of many demonstrations over Brown’s death, after a black 18-year-old was shot by officers when he allegedly opened fire on their unmarked SUV following a gunfight with several other men. The man is in a critical condition in the hospital and has been charged with several crimes.
Pentagon officials said they ordered Ferguson to return the two vehicles in June this year after discovering in a data review that the city had been given twice as many Humvees in 2013 under the so-called “1033” equipment transfer program as they had previously known, without proper federal authorisation.
“The Ferguson police department officially has two Humvees on their books; the state coordinators provided the police department two more Humvees without following the proper transfer protocol,” Mark Wright, a spokesman for the defense department, said in a statement.
But this was denied by Missouri law enforcement officials, who in effect operate a warehouse for federal military equipment and act as broker between the Pentagon and municipalities in the state that are seeking it. The state officials said the Pentagon did give permission for Ferguson to have four Humvees before “losing the records” for two of them. Wright, the Pentagon spokesman, did not immediately respond to this claim.
Officials said Ferguson initially told the Pentagon they wanted to appeal against the decision to take back the vehicles, but this was rejected by the Defense Department. “So we’re going to go down with a trailer and truck and get them on an expedited basis,” said Mike O’Connell, the communications director for the Missouri department of public safety, which acts as the go-between with the US government in the equipment transfer program.
Wright said the two additional Humvees may be assigned to another law enforcement agency in Missouri after being returned by Ferguson. He said Ferguson was not being terminated or suspended from the 1033 program and could make future applications. The city is home to only 21,000 people and has a police department comprising about 55 officers, leading many critics to question the need for an arsenal of military-style equipment.
Wright also stressed that while “uncontrolled” equipment transferred under the federal program – such as office supplies and many other nonlethal materials – are the municipalities’ to keep, controlled equipment such as vehicles and weapons “remain on our books”. He said: “They are kind of on a long-term lease.”
More cosmetic change than reform
But while federal officials say the reclaiming of the Humvees was not directly related to the long-running civil unrest in Ferguson, the Pentagon has not necessarily exercised this power elsewhere in the year since.
In response to the defining police-protester standoffs in Ferguson, the Pentagon undertook a nationwide review of federal disbursements to police.
Barack Obama questioned whether state and local police were purchasing equipment that was truly necessary, saying in August: “One of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement. That helps preserve our civil liberties. That helps ensure that the military is accountable to civilian direction. And that has to be preserved.”
But under Obama’s new plan, Ferguson’s police are the exception to the rule – police found to violate civil rights do not necessarily have to return the military hardware they have acquired. And the military gear and funding to purchase it continues to funnel down to police stations.
Across the panoply of programs by which state and local police can acquire weapons, vehicles, aircraft and surveillance tools typically used by the US military and intelligence agencies, police must now merely jump through more bureaucratic hoops rather than face an outright ban on all but the most controversial items – many of which had not been distributed for years. Federal security agencies describe police departments as partners to aid, while pledging greater scrutiny over their requests.
Pursuant to a government-wide directive issued in May, police seeking sophisticated and potentially lethal hardware like shotguns or explosives must now provide a “detailed justification for acquiring the controlled equipment”. Applications must include acknowledgement of any civil rights violations in the recent past, with an explanation of corrective action. Police must also show “evidence of a civilian governing body’s review and approval or concurrence” – an endorsement that mayors, who depend on their police, may be unlikely to withhold.
In the event of a violation of usage conditions, US officials said, police would not necessarily have equipment confiscated. The Defense Department has long had its own rules for requisitioning its gear, as it retains the title to dispensed military hardware, but the Pentagon’s Wright said the military only reclaims that gear “under very rare circumstances”.
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