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Justice Department Censures Police Departments, Department of Defense Gives Them Weapons

Federal Government Chastises Police for Civil Rights Violations, But Provides Them with Military Weapons

Assault rifleIt appears that communication remains a problem within the federal government, as attested to by the existence of a Department of Defense program that allows local police departments to apply for and obtain lethal military weapons, even if they have been censured by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations.

The Department of Justice is tasked with investigating alleged civil rights violations by local law enforcement officers, and had conducted more than 20 such investigations in the last five years. In some instances, the investigations lead to sanctions, known as “consent decrees,” whereby the DOJ imposes and the police department agrees to make specific changes in policy, practice or procedure. According to critics, though, being cited for civil rights violations does not appear to disqualify law enforcement agencies for the free surplus military equipment doled out by the Department of Defense. The DOD official who oversees the program acknowledged to a Congressional committee that the department does not take civil rights violations into account when determining who receives weapons.

A DOD spokesperson said that the program was initially approved by Congress in the 1990s as part of the “war on drugs,” but has been expanded in recent years because of concerns about terrorism. She contends that there is a vetting process, that police departments “don’t say “we want it” and they get it.” She noted that more than one quarter of the requests in 2014 have been denied.

The issue has come to forefront after images of police responding to Ferguson rioters showed tear gas, riot gear and armored vehicles. Among the recipients of free weapons under the program are:

  • The Warren, Ohio, police department, sanctioned in 2012 for a pattern of excessive force, which requested and received 30 M16 rifles
  • The Washington, D.C., police department, found to have engaged in a pattern of excessive force for over a decade, received a shipment of semi-automatic weapons

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