Some cities question benefits of free U.S. military gear
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle seemed like a useful piece of equipment for the Albuquerque Police Department - at least at first.
But less than a year after the hulking tactical vehicle arrived from the U.S. Defense Department, Albuquerque police have yet to use it and are giving it up. The MRAP's bulk and its inability to turn easily makes it unsuitable for urban policing in New Mexico, said Tanner Tixier, a department spokesman.
"It's just not applicable to what we do on a day-to-day basis," Tixier said. "It has absolutely no practical application in an urban area."
The Pentagon's Excess Property Program, which gives unused military equipment to police departments across the country, has come under scrutiny after protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of an unarmed black teen. The demonstrations were met by a police response that critics say was more suited for a war zone than mostly peaceful rallies in an American city.
The program, which began in the early 1990s and is better known as 1033, has expanded dramatically since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has proven hugely popular with cities that welcome the offer of sophisticated equipment free of charge.
But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as a growing number of elected officials, have expressed concern that the equipment increases the chances of violent street encounters and inflames tensions between police and citizens.
"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday.
Authorities have since retooled the police response in Ferguson. Governor Jay Nixon handed control of security during the protests to a captain in the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Captain Ron Johnson, an African-American native of Ferguson, sought to defuse tensions by meeting the protesters face to face and pulling back on the earlier show of force. There were no violent encounters or arrests reported on Thursday night, the first with Johnson in charge.
SENATE TO REVIEW PROGRAM
A bill to amend the Pentagon program is pending before Congress.
On Friday, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the program was intended to protect police against heavily armed drug gangs and terrorists.
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," Levin said.
He said the Senate would undertake a review of the program to determine if the equipment is being used as it was intended.
The question of the appropriateness of military-grade equipment in U.S. cities has also come up recently in the New Hampshire town of Keene, which has a population of 23,000.
The town is famous for its annual pumpkin contest, which attracts thousands of visitors every year, and Keene holds a world record for the number of jack-o-lanterns lit at one time.
Town officials cited the festival as a potential security threat when they made a request to the Pentagon for a BearCat, a military-style armored vehicle.
Keene City Councilman Terry Clark objected, and a public hearing on the matter attracted hundreds of concerned citizens, he said. The request was subsequently approved.
"The militarization of our police force really troubles me," said Clark. "The biggest problem we ever had at the pumpkin festival was drinking by the college students after the event."
A representative from the Keene police department did not respond to calls seeking comment.
A bill was introduced earlier this year to the New Hampshire state legislature that seeks to block future acquisitions of BearCats.
In New Jersey's Bergen County - a suburban area near New York City - the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked Sheriff Michael Saudino to withdraw a request for two vehicles similar to one acquired by Albuquerque.
Of greatest concern is the fact that towns, cities and agencies have built up military-style arsenals without a full public debate, said the group's policy director Ari Rosmarin.
"This is all happening behind closed doors," Rosmarin said. "To the extent you can keep an armored vehicle behind closed doors."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
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