No, the Ferguson Police's Weapons Did Not Come From the Pentagon

Police prepare to advance after using tear gas to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Police prepare to advance after using tear gas to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Charlie Riedel/AP

The most iconic image to come out of Ferguson, Mo., in the last two weeks may be one of a lone man in a T-shirt with his hands up, facing a line of heavily armed police officers.

After a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson on August 9, protesters took to the streets to cry out for justice. First, the Ferguson police responded, then the St. Louis County police, then the Missouri Highway Patrol, until finally Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called in the National Guard.

The ramped-up police presence in Ferguson, a town of 21,000, led many to decry what they saw as an excessive use of force against the protesters, the large majority of whom were nonviolent. Seeing police officers in full body armor, riding in armored cars and carrying assault rifles, drew many comparisons between the civilian police force and the U.S. Army.

It may be surprising to learn, then, that the vast majority of the assault rifles, body armor, and armored vehicles seen in Ferguson did not come from the Pentagon. They did not come from the National Guard. They came from the Ferguson and St. Louis Police Departments' own budgets.

That's not to say local police around the country aren't getting weapons from the military. In response to the war on drugs in the late 1980s, Congress passed a law in 1990 allowing local police departments to request excess military equipment from the Defense Department.

But speaking at a news conference on Friday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said almost none of the tactical equipment used in the Ferguson protests came from the Pentagon.

"As you look at the video coming out of Ferguson, I understand people would say, 'Well, look at all that military gear,'" Kirby said. "Most of it, in fact all of it, is not military gear. It doesn't belong to us. We didn't provide it to them."

The Ferguson Police Department acquired two soft-skinned Humvees, a generator, and a cargo trailer through the Pentagon program. The rest of the tactical gear either came from the National Guard or from the local police departments themselves, according to Pentagon officials.

Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that most of the combat gear used by police in Ferguson did not come from the military transfer program.

"Virtually everything you saw in those photos, where it shows the sniper with a rifle with the scope on top of that armored vehicle? None of that's National Guard. None of that's military. That has been purchased for years and years and years by the police," Wright told National Journal.

So while the 1033 program may have contributed to the climate in Ferguson, it did not directly lead to the scenes of protesters confronting heavily armed police officers in armored cars, throwing tear gas canisters. In fact, unlike the Ferguson police, the military cannot use tear gas in combat—it's banned under the Geneva Convention's rules for international warfare.

Nevertheless, President Obama has called for a formal review of the transfer program.

"I think it's probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they're purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred, Obama said last week. "And I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs."

Attorney General Eric Holder also scrutinized the program over the weekend, saying, "it makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it."

While the Ferguson Police Department may not have received much military equipment, St. Louis County at large did. Since 2006, the Pentagon has provided seven soft-skinned Humvees—two of which went to Ferguson—along with 12 M-16 rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, three helicopters, seven trucks, three cargo trailers, two night-vision pieces, and a bomb-sniffing robot to the St. Louis County Police Department to distribute as it sees fit.

But according to Wright, no weapons that the Pentagon provided to St. Louis County ended up being used in response to the Ferguson protests.

"I think the M-16 s and pistols went elsewhere," Wright said. "As far as I know, the only thing tactical that they received was two of those seven Humvees, a trailer and a generator."

And though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel may order a review of his own, the Pentagon is pushing back against the notion that its transfer program has led to the militarization of civilian police forces. According to the Pentagon, 95 percent of the military equipment requested by local precincts is not tactical—the gear can range from helicopters and weapons, to laptops and camouflage, to furniture.

Wright noted that the program has been extremely successful for cash-strapped police departments. He cited the Nashville Police Department, which was able to acquire Zodiac boats through the Pentagon transfer program that it wouldn't be able to afford otherwise. When Nashville suffered severe flooding in 2010, the police department was able to use the boats to rescue stranded residents.

"We've heard extraordinarily positive feedback—up until now—from police departments," Wright said. "Doesn't it make sense to see that material is given to communities that could use it that wouldn't have it otherwise?"

Reviewing the 1033 program—or ending it altogether, as some have suggested—will not necessarily limit police departments' ability to arm their officers with assault rifles or acquire armored vehicles. In the wake of Brown's death, the police presence raises a trickier question: For America's police departments, what is the new normal?

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