By Christi Parsons
Troubled by images of heavily armed police facing off protesters in Ferguson, Mo., President Barack Obama is ordering a review of federal programs that help law enforcement agencies buy military equipment.
Obama wants to know whether the programs are "appropriate" for local policing and whether police are given the training and guidance needed to use military-grade equipment properly, a senior administration official said Saturday.
The review, to be led by White House staff, will also look into whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of the equipment it helps facilitate, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the president's in-house directive.
The federal government has been helping police purchase military equipment for more than 10 years, ever since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, raised concerns about police readiness for a serious attack. Through grant programs and transfers from the military, the U.S. government has helped make the gear available to law enforcement agencies across the nation that have asked for it.
But the gear hadn't been widely noted until unrest broke out in Ferguson early this month over the shooting by a white police officer of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black man. The incident stirred protests, looting and some anti-police violence, which in turn inspired the police to get out their body armor, heavy vehicles and automatic rifles.
The White House has kept a close eye on the situation in Ferguson since Aug. 9, the day of the shooting, with senior advisers detailed to keep in touch with the governor, lawmakers and civil rights leaders on a daily basis.
On Saturday, the White House said several Obama staffers would attend Brown's funeral on Monday. Among them is Marlon Marshall, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, a St. Louis native who was a high school classmate of Brown's mother.
After seeing images of the police gear in video footage, Obama asked senior advisers to look into the programs that provided them. He also spoke about the images in a news conference with reporters a week after Brown's death. Some post-9/11 equipment upgrades have been useful, he said, noting in particular the improvements to radio communications and to equipment for dealing with hazardous material.
But Obama said he wanted to make sure that what police are buying is "stuff that they actually need."
He also warned that "there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions."
Since 1995, the Pentagon has distributed $5.1 billion in surplus military equipment to U.S. police departments, including sleeping bags and office equipment, but also assault rifles, mine-resistant armored personnel carriers and helicopters. Police in Banning, Calif., obtained an 18-ton tank.
Obama issued the directive from the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where he is wrapping up a two-week vacation that coincided with eruptions of violence at home and abroad. Last week, Obama left his family to go back to Washington for two days of work in the White House, where he conducted a news conference to discuss the conflicts in Missouri and in Iraq.
Once back on the island, he held another news conference to talk about the murder of American journalist James Foley by militants of the terrorist group Islamic State. He is expected to end his vacation and return to Washington late Sunday night.
Beginning this week, the White House domestic and national security staff will launch its review in agencies including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, the official said.
One of the first questions they will ask is whether the government should keep providing military equipment to state and local police, and, if so, what kind of training should go along with it; and they will examine the government systems for securing the caches of weaponry and monitoring their use, the official said.
White House officials believe there is at least some bipartisan support for such a review. Last week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, in an opinion piece in Time magazine, decried the "increasing militarization" of police across the nation.
"There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response," Paul wrote. "The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action."
Still, Paul's thoughts on the subject have stirred up some objections among conservatives that are likely to be echoed on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return from their summer break.
(c)2014 Tribune Co.