WASHINGTON -- Appearing at the White House during a respite from his vacation, President Barack Obama on Monday offered support for a review of the militarization of local law enforcement.
Addressing the ongoing strife in Ferguson, Missouri, Obama sought a balanced resolution. He urged looters to stop commandeering a legitimate civil rights protest, and called on the police to further respect the rights of protesters. His most noteworthy remarks came when asked about the machinery being deployed by those police in recent days to quell unrest, which has been criticized for instead inciting tensions and further alienating the local community.
"I think one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement," said the president. "That helps preserve our civil liberties. That helps ensure that the military is accountable to civilian direction. And that has to be preserved. After 9/11, I think, understandably, a lot of folks saw local communities that were ill equipped for a potential catastrophic terrorist attack. And I think people in Congress, people of goodwill, decided we've got to make sure they get proper equipment to deal with threats that historically wouldn't arise in local communities."
“Some of that has been useful,” Obama conceded, citing law enforcement officials who didn’t have basic radios that could operate in the midst of a disaster.
However, he added, “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 are purchasing is stuff they actually need. Because there’s a big difference between our military and local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions."
The militarization of law enforcement may have become a hot-button national issue in the wake of the Ferguson protests, but it's been a simmering controversy for years. Nevertheless, Congress has largely turned a blind eye to the matter, choosing to send unused Pentagon funds to police under the guise of enhancing neighborhood safety. As The Huffington Post reported on Monday:
House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in June to block legislation by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) that would have stopped the program, which funnels surplus military weapons to police departments at no charge. The so-called '1033 program,' launched in 1997, has provided billions of dollars in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies around the country. Grayson's amendment failed 62 to 355, with Democrats opposing the legislation by a 3-to-1 margin.
The effects of the program have been on full display in Ferguson, where police have responded to mostly peaceful protests over the Aug. 9 murder of Michael Brown with a stunning display of force involving armored vehicles, tear gas, assault rifles and smoke bombs. The result is a nightly scene that looks more like an international war zone than a St. Louis suburb.
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