What some see as an overly forceful response this month by police in Ferguson, Mo., to protesters angered by the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer has prompted discussion of the militarization of local police.
The debate has its roots in the 1990s when Washington sought to help local governments fight well-armed drug gangs by steering surplus military equipment to police departments. The program only gained momentum after 9/11. But reports from Ferguson helped highlight the use by even small-town police agencies of armored vehicles, high-powered rifles, grenade launchers and other weapons normally associated with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama was among those who called for a review of the policy. "There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said. "That would be contrary to our traditions." Others, however, said the increased arming of law enforcement simply reflects the realities of the world today. Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the program as useful because "it allows for the reuse of military equipment that otherwise would be disposed of."