Civil rights groups insist police are becoming too militarized

The image of Ferguson, Mo., police officers in camouflage pointing high-caliber rifles from armored vehicles at unarmed protesters has crystallized a debate over whether a decades-long flow of military-grade equipment to the nation's police departments has gone too far.

On both left and right, political figures as varied as Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pointed to Ferguson, denouncing what Holder referred to this week as "unnecessarily extreme displays of force" by police.

That debate fits into a larger pattern: A huge upsurge of mayhem in the 1970s and 1980s led to tough-on-crime measures across the country. Now, after two decades of improvements in most places, policies such as long, mandatory prison sentences and expansions of police surveillance are being questioned.

The use of military-style equipment by even small-town police departments is the latest tactic to come under scrutiny.

For years, the money and equipment has flowed copiously. Since 1995, the Pentagon has distributed $5.1 billion in surplus military equipment to U.S. police departments — sleeping bags, cameras and office equipment, but also assault rifles, mine-resistant armored personnel carriers and helicopters, said Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright.

The goods come free of charge except for the cost of picking them up.

The Department of Homeland Security gives more than $1 billion a year to state and local police, much of it for equipment.

This year, the Pentagon program is up for what would normally have been a noncontroversial renewal. An effort in the House to repeal it failed this summer by a lopsided 355-62 vote.

Friday, however, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the program needed to be reviewed "to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended."

In an age of mass shootings and terrorist threats, with local budgets flat, police chiefs face a huge temptation to fill their arsenals with federal largess, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation and a former chief in Redlands.

"A lot of departments jumped at the opportunity to acquire things they normally could not afford," Bueermann said. But "just because we can get the equipment, it doesn't mean we should use it."

In some cases, the pitfalls become quickly apparent.

Last year, the small police department of Banning ordered an 18-ton tank complete with gun turret. A police sergeant was assigned to pick up the vehicle and drive it home. Along the way, he blew a tire on Interstate 10 in southern Arizona, careened across the roadway, totaled a pickup and knocked out the windshield of another vehicle.

No one was injured, but the accident cost Banning $42,000. Angry city officials and residents demanded to know why police needed a tank.

In other cases, departments have acquired equipment they could not afford to maintain. For some armored vehicles, "a tire can cost $10,000 or $12,000" to replace, said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Assn., a nonprofit group based in Doylestown, Pa., that trains SWAT teams.

Los Angeles Deputy Chief Mike Downing, who oversees counter-terrorism and other special operations, noted in a recent report that police SWAT teams, created in the 1960s, have morphed into military battalions.

Police departments that seek "to justify their existence and budgets" often begin using heavy equipment for relatively routine missions such as serving warrants, he said. That has become "a dangerous and unnecessary temptation."

Departments need to ask, "Do we need the type of weapon they are offering?" said Chris Nanos, chief deputy of the Pima County Sheriff's Department in southern Arizona. "A 14-ton armored vehicle? I don't know what you would do with that."

Lack of training and leadership can be as big a problem as excessive equipment, said Ron McCarthy, a former Los Angeles police SWAT team supervisor who now works as a consultant for police departments.

"If you're not going to provide the appropriate training, you shouldn't have the equipment," McCarthy said.