WASHINGTON — A Democratic congressman plans to introduce a bill to restrict a Defense Department program that provides machine guns and other surplus military equipment for free to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said Thursday that the death of an unarmed teenager who was shot by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb highlights the need for the legislation, which has been in the works for months. The bill comes as members of Congress have called for the Justice Department to investigate the shooting of a black teen by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Police in riot gear and military garb have clashed nightly with protesters since Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown and at times have trained weapons on them from armored trucks.
A spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency, the government’s combat logistics support agency, said the Ferguson Police Department has been part of the surplus equipment program. It received two tactical vehicles — both Humvees — as well as a generator and a trailer and may have received other equipment, DLA spokesman Joe Yoswa said.
Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said Thursday. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.
The bill, to be introduced in September, targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to comment on Johnson’s proposal.
In response to the shooting, Boehner said in a statement that his thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Michael Brown, the teenager who was killed Saturday.
“I strongly support a full and thorough investigation of the events surrounding his death, and subsequent actions, including the detention of journalists covering this heartbreaking situation,” Boehner said.