WASHINGTON -- Local police forces need military equipment to fight terrorism, members of Congress argued in June when they successfully beat back legislation that would have restricted the Defense Department's ability to transfer such weaponry to police departments.
During a late-night debate on an annual defense appropriations bill, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) tried to attach an amendment to demilitarize the police. Specifically, his measure would have blocked a Defense Department program that provides surplus military equipment -- Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and M16 assault rifles, among other things -- to local law enforcement, free of charge.
The House crushed Grayson's effort, with 355 votes against it and 62 for it. Ahead of the vote, lawmakers argued that it's good for local law enforcement to have access to weapons used in war zones. One member warned it would "devastate" police departments if they didn't have access to such equipment.
"As a past sheriff, we utilized that equipment in a responsible way," said Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.). "End of the day, you can always find misuses of any equipment that's given or utilized by law enforcement. It's the responsibility of those communities to keep that law enforcement agency in check. But to just outright ban the usage of that equipment would devastate local law enforcement agencies across the nation."
He added, "This is absolutely ludicrous to think the equipment that's utilized by law enforcement is utilized for any reason other than public safety."
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said he welcomed the use of military equipment in his state, where many people died in the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.
"It's not misused," he said. "And the law enforcement agencies in the Northeast that benefit from this equipment have used it to make sure that all of our citizens are protected. And not only in the Northeast."
Grayson pointed out that police aren't using military weapons for terrorists.
"Where is the terrorism on our streets? Instead, these weapons are being used to arrest barbers and to terrorize the general population," he said. "In fact, one might venture to say that the weapons are often used by a majority to terrorize a minority."
Concerns about police militarization were thrust into the forefront this week as local law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, rolled out armored vehicles and sprayed rubber bullets and tear gas onto mostly peaceful protesters. People in the St. Louis suburb have gathered in the streets for days to protest the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer on Saturday.
One Missouri Democrat who voted against Grayson's amendment, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, said Friday that he was concerned the measure was overly broad.
"We need to re-evaluate distributing this kind of war equipment to municipalities," Cleaver said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "And if we are going to do it, we must at least have other requirements, including something as simple as adequate training."
Legally, the Defense Department program has the ability to pass along all types of military-grade weapons to police departments. Grayson listed them during June's House debate: grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, chemical agents, biological agents, launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines and nuclear weapons.
Nugent scoffed at the idea that any of those things would end up in the hands of local police.
"All the helicopters we had in our fleet are all surplus helicopters that flew as far back as Vietnam. Some of the weapons that we have come from the military. We didn't receive any bombs."
Watch the House debate in the video above.
Zach Carter contributed reporting.
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