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After Cries Of 'Fergustan,' Scrutiny On Military Program

(Peggy Lowe/KCUR)

Police dressed in full combat gear and gas masks, firing rifles directly at protestors as clouds of tear gas drifted up under street lights.

More cops, all in a line, marching behind huge armored tanks. Night sticks in hand, the police pressed protestors back, staying behind shields as people fled.

The images from Ferguson, Mo., last week were startling and cries of “Fergustan” rang from the streets and onto Twitter.

“We need to de-militarize this situation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”

The federal government has fueled the Ferguson “show of force” and that of many local law enforcement groups for free, transferring the equipment and gear at no cost to the police agencies. Thanks to a U.S. Department of Defense program, the agencies have grown increasingly militarized as the regular military scales back on war efforts and transfers the equipment and gear back home.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the federal 1033 program, whose motto is “From Warfighter to Crimefighter,” has transferred more than $5 billion worth of equipment ranging from armored vehicles to aircraft, machine guns to magazines for ammunition.

In Missouri, law enforcement agencies have used the 1033 program to acquire 940 assault rifles, 258 night-vision goggles, 15 armored vehicles, 12 aircraft and 43 sets of body armor, according to this New York Times map that sources the Department of Defense.

Credit Department of Defense and Missouri Department of Public Safety
Click to enlarge -- Data table shows the breakdown of military hardware available in Missouri, Kansas and Jackson County, Mo.

Since 2009, in Kansas City, Mo., alone, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department received two armored vehicles, 29 rifle sights, 10 rifles, four trucks, four night-vision goggles, two bridge erection boats and a robotic tool for explosives, according to information gleaned from a public records request to the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

The latest piece of equipment the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department received, in April, was a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. It’s meant to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and other enemy attacks. Several calls to the department for comment were not returned.

Other Missouri agencies that have MRAPs are: Bates County (Butler, capital), population 16,709; Christian County (Ozark), population 79,824; Clay County (Liberty), population 227, 577; Cole County (Jefferson City), population 76,363; Joplin, population 49, 526; and Nixa, population 19,022.

You can see the county-by-county breakdown for Kansas here, and Missouri here.

In rural Clay County, 20 miles to the north of Kansas City, the sheriff’s department received its MRAP in April but it has not yet been used, said Lt. Will Akin. The 20-foot-long vehicle, which weighs more than 12 tons, has four-foot tires and a circular gun turret over the driver’s seat.

“We don’t plan on using it until we can get it painted, put the emergency lights put on it,” Akin said, “so the public can identify it as a law enforcement vehicle rather than a military vehicle and associate it with public safety as opposed to the military.”

The vehicle will be used by the department’s SWAT team, he said, adding that he wished they had it back in February when they responded to a potential shooter at a Gladstone school.

“It would have been better to have this vehicle, rather than moving from one location on foot and being completely exposed, trying to save those children’s lives,” he said.

The 1033 program has come under fire from several sides, from liberals to libertarians.  In June, the ACLU released a study called “War Comes Home,” claiming American police forces have become "excessively militarized" and that the free programs creates incentives for cops to use “unnecessarily aggressive weapons.”

Former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has called for an end to the 1033 program.

“It certainly sends the wrong message when you see police officers outfitted like Army soldiers,” said Doug Bonney of the ACLU of Kansas.  “That will chill your desire to be out and exercising your First Amendment rights.”

Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said police culture calls for preparation. Underfunded local agencies see the program as a way to beef up on some technologies they wouldn’t typically get to buy, he said.

“It’s all about being prepared, being prepared for Armeggedon and hope that it never happens. Until it happens. (Then) you’ve got the technology and the things to use,” he said.

So for instance, Novak said the show of force in Ferguson last week was aimed at controlling the crowd. But that much hardware also gets in the way of resolving the long-standing issues, he said.

“It runs the risk of creating a much harsher thin blue line between the police and the public because it doesn’t allow for the interaction, the non-confrontational interaction between the police and the public that’s necessary to move partnerships and public policy forward,” he said.

According to Department of Defense figures, Kansas got 1,207 assault rifles, 14 sets of body armor, 13 night-vision goggles, two grenade launchers, and eight armored vehicles, including MRAPS in Coffeyville, population 9,993 and Lyon County (Emporia), population 33,748.

In Fairway, a Kansas City suburb named for its driving ranges, Police Chief Mike Fleming said his officers use the one pair of night-vision goggles he received under the program on the town’s golf courses and wooded areas.

“We’ve located prowler suspects, peeping toms. We’ve located burglary suspects,” he said. “We’ve located people who have fled from car chases where they have run after wrecking a car.”

The program’s future is unclear, now that it has come under intense scrutiny following Ferguson. Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson from Georgia has introduced legislation proposing a limit on the giveaways.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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