NEW YORK -- When the police deployed tank-like armored vehicles during protests following the fatal shooting in August 2014 of a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, the military imagery provoked widespread anger. And that anger is only spreading as local police forces across the U.S. become increasingly militarized.
The U.S. government has been handing out surplus military gear and weapons such as MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, grenade launchers, night vision devices to local law enforcement forces for over 20 years, mainly as a measure against terrorism. In December, President Barack Obama ordered a review of the practice, and momentum is gathering to restrict the use of military weapons by police.
Following the review the White House announced on May 18 that Obama has banned the US government from giving certain kinds of military-style equipment to local police forces. It means armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms and grenade launchers will no longer be given out.
"It felt like being in a war," said a Japanese-American Shuya Ohno, campaign director of civil rights organization, Advancement Project who joined a protest in Ferguson last November. He was held at machine-gun-point by a camouflage-clad police officer standing atop a massive armored vehicle. The protest march, which included seniors and children, was "stalled between those vehicles," Ohno said.
The U.S. Defense Department began transferring military equipment to local police forces in the 1990s after a new law authorized the free transfer of military gear no longer in use, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, night-vision goggles, tents and generators.
Some $5.1 billion worth of such gear has been transferred to about 8,000 federal and state police organizations, roughly half of which has been disbursed in the past five years. Behind the move was a push to improve the country's security situation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, an increase in gun crimes and financial difficulties at local governments brought on by the Great Recession. The practice allowed local police agencies to acquire armored vehicles and other equipment they could not otherwise afford.
A 45-minute drive from the Minnesota capital of St. Paul is the Dakota Country Sheriff's Office. It has its own armored vehicle, a hulking machine about 8 meters long, 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. It has a gun turret on top, a floor heavily armored against mines, and weighs about 14 tons. The Defense Department bought large numbers of this type of vehicle for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though the vehicle costs $650,000 new, the sheriff's office paid only the $3,000, which was the shipping cost. It is used by police SWAT personnel, and Chief Deputy of Dakota County Sheriff's office Joe Leko said the vehicle will play a big role in such operations as hostage situations or school shootings.
But the heavy arming of police forces is meeting severe public criticism. Police have deployed armored vehicles to control demonstrations in various places since the Ferguson shooting. Images of these scenes have been widely carried on TV and through social media, causing concern to quickly ripple through the public. "Do we need armored vehicles in the countryside like this?" asked Jay Soeffker, a St. Paul limousine driver.
Concerned that America's freedoms of expression and assembly are being threatened, Minnesota Sen. Branden Peterson submitted a bill in January to prohibit state and local government units and law enforcement agencies from acquiring military-grade weapons from the Pentagon. A U.S. think tank, The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that similar bills had been introduced in nine states, including California, Connecticut, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont, in addition to Minnesota as of March 31. At the end of 2014, Obama announced a review of military-equipment transfers to police.
In a December survey by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, 95% of police chiefs supported those transfers. Stating an opinion shared by many police officials, one said, "It's extremely important to protect the lives of citizens and police officers from criminals." The debate will likely continue over the sensible limits on allowing these transfers for the sake of peace and order.
Unlike in the U.S., the use of armored vehicles by Japanese police is out of the question. The National Police Agency says the police act limits officers to the use of "small" weapons.
Although no law specifically prohibits the transfer of weapons from the Self-Defense Forces -- even those that would be allowed under the police act -- it has never happened. The NPA says the purpose of police weapons is to control and apprehend suspects, and therefore the police do not need gear designed to defend the country.
That is not to say Japanese police are completely without stronger firepower. To address such events as terrorist acts and hijackings, eight police organizations in Japan, including Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department, have Special Assault Teams equipped with rifles and machine guns.