TOPICS > Nation

Why military equipment is in the hands of local police

August 14, 2014 at 6:26 PM EDT
Violent clashes between local police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted the distribution of military equipment to police departments around the country from the U.S. Defense Department. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times about the concerns over the militarization of domestic law enforcement.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: One of the many issues in Ferguson attracting national attention is the extent to which local police are becoming ever more heavily armed, or, as many put it, militarized.

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studios picks up that part of the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most notably, many have been talking about how military equipment is making its way from the Department of Defense to police departments around the country.

Matt Apuzzo been covering this for The New York Times and joins me now from its Washington, D.C., bureau.

So, Matt, what kind of equipment are we talking about? What are local authorities in Ferguson using that came from the DOD or the Pentagon?

MATT APUZZO, The New York Times: Well, I mean, for starters, the Pentagon makes it very hard to track equipment that goes from the military to local agencies.

I mean, the best data we can get comes at the county level. But in a response like this, where — you know, where it’s basically all hands on deck for a county response, you know, a number of M-16s — M-16s are very common. Under President Obama, there have been tens of thousands of M-16s transferred to police departments nationwide, after, you know, being used in the military.

We have also seen there also have been some trucks, there have been some aircraft. This is part of a program that began as part of the drug war, the idea being, in the ’90s, we need to give this surplus military equipment to police departments as a way to fight drug gangs.

And like a lot of programs, after 9/11, it was sort of re-engineered for counterterrorism purposes and expanded. And, you know, you have really seen — after the drawdown of two wars, you have really seen a huge amount of military equipment being transferred from the Pentagon to local police departments, state and local police departments.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how widespread is this and what happens to the equipment if police departments don’t want it?

MATT APUZZO: Well, it’s very widespread.

It’s one of the more popular programs as far as police goes, because this stuff is free. So, what happens is, for instance, we bought a bunch of — we, the United States taxpayer, bought a bunch of MRAPs, mine-resistant trucks, for fighting in Iraq.

And now we’re not in — now we’re not fighting in Iraq anymore, and so we have got all these extra trucks. And so they’re basically offering them to police departments for free. And they say, if you want these trucks, you can have them, and if you don’t want them, we will just scrap them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So the police departments that you have talked to in your reporting, do they say any particular reason that they need an armored vehicle that can withstand a mine patrolling their streets?

MATT APUZZO: Well, most police departments say, well, look, I don’t think we necessarily need it to sustain a mine explosions, but we wanted a bulletproof truck, and this was the one that was available for free, or we could go out and buy it.

Now, remember, for the past 10 years, there have been — federal grants have been paying for these — for police departments to buy this stuff outright. So the idea of — the idea that this is all just coming from the Pentagon, that’s just one part of it.

So what you’re seeing is, you’re seeing police departments saying, well, geez, if it’s free, what’s the downside?

HARI SREENIVASAN: And one of their concerns is that their citizenry or communities in certain areas are heavily armed. Is there any legitimacy to that idea, that claim, saying, we’re almost outgunned when we go out there and we don’t feel protected?

MATT APUZZO: Well, I mean, certainly, there’s an argument that police should be protected.

Nobody — any — nobody I talk to say — nobody anybody would talk to would say that police shouldn’t have protection. But the idea that — the idea that the streets of the United States are so dangerous as to — the police are outgunned, it just isn’t borne out by the data.

We’re looking at violent crime in the United States now is at a generational low, and police shootings have been steadily declining — shootings against police. And I should note that, while the federal government and private groups keep data when people shoot police, no such data is collected when the police shoots people.

And what’s interesting about this is, what we’re seeing in Ferguson, is we can have the discussion about the — what military equipment should go to police departments, but you can be certain that what’s happening in Ferguson is only going to encourage more police departments to buy this stuff.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

And what about the — we had a couple of members of Congress today, even the attorney general say that they’re very concerned about this militarization. Anything likely to happen? It seems like a congressional program with some support.

MATT APUZZO: Yes, I mean, there hasn’t really been any opposition to this program.

You know, the criticism of the so-called militarization of police has largely come from libertarian quarters for several years. They have kind of been the lone voice on this, folks like the Cato institute. “Reason” magazine has been writing a lot about this.

And you’re sort of seeing — you’re sort of seeing right now — in Ferguson, you’re starting to see what’s happening there, kind of galvanize some of the more traditional liberal voices against this in ways that they have kind of just been on the sidelines on this issue.

But you’re right. The idea that — the idea that this is a new concept to members of Congress is certainly — it’s just not true. It’s been no secret that these transfers have been going. It’s a popular — the military transfer program is very popular, as are the grant programs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times joining us from Washington, D.C., thanks so much.

MATT APUZZO: Thank you.