The Pentagon on Tuesday mounted a vigorous defense of the surplus military equipment transfer program that has drawn criticism following the police crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Defense Department's chief spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters during a briefing that the 1033 program was not "some program run amok," despite images of heavily armored officers in Ferguson that have fed concerns about the "militarization" of local law enforcement.
Congress created the program in 1990 to allow police departments to apply for free transfers of excess military equipment as local authorities sought to beef up security to combat drug gangs. Transfers have increased as the Pentagon wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While a House proposal seeks to boost accountability and limit the kind of equipment that the military can give to local law enforcement, Kirby said there were already safeguards in place and that the Pentagon had the authority to stop future transfers to police departments.
We don’t push equipment on anybody. This is excess equipment the taxpayers have paid for and we're not using anymore. And it is made available to law enforcement agencies, if they want it and if they qualify for it."
Kirby also said that not all requests were granted.
Just because they ask for a helicopter doesn’t mean that they get a helicopter."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is seeking more information on the transfer program, a day after President Obama said the issue merited a second look in the wake of the Ferguson protests.
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. That would be contrary to our traditions. And I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs."
Despite the move, however, Kirby insisted the Defense Department was not "militarizing" police departments and that the program as a whole was "useful" and "served a purpose."
"Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here," Kirby said.