02:39 - Source: CNN
Why do police have battlefield weapons?

Story highlights

Sen. Tom Coburn's bill would block cops from getting some types of military equipment

Justice Department, White House criticized heavy police response in Ferguson, Missouri

Pentagon officials say they have no way of tracking equipment once it's given to police

Washington CNN —  

A new Senate bill is the first proposed legislation to curb so-called police militarization after the disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, is sponsoring the legislation, which would block state and local police from receiving broad categories of military-grade equipment, including M-16 rifles, MRAP vehicles and camouflage equipment. He also proposes to require local police that have received such equipment in recent years to return it to the Defense Department.

“MRAP” is shorthand for a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, something usually associated with war zones.

The legislation is a test of the strength of the congressional backlash against the much criticized heavy police response to demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Televised images of camouflaged police in tank-like vehicles launching tear gas canisters and concussion grenades at protesters in Ferguson prompted criticism from both liberals and conservatives. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder also criticized the heavy response, which they said appeared to inflame the disturbances, not quell them.

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The White House and Pentagon have announced reviews of the federal programs.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, in whose home state the disturbances occurred, led a congressional hearing this month that scrutinized programs run by the Pentagon and the Homeland Security and Justice departments to help local police departments obtain surplus military equipment and buy new armor. The programs are mostly operated with the aim of helping local cities prepare for possible terrorist attacks.

But cities aren’t restricted in how they use the equipment, for instance using them in response to hurricanes and national disasters and to prepare for street protests. At the hearing, federal authorities said they didn’t have ways to track what happens with the equipment once it is in the hands of local authorities, and in some cases the equipment has gone missing.

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It’s not clear how much support Coburn, a conservative senator, will receive for his bill. But sentiment in Congress appears to support at least some changes to the current program.

Coburn wants the Defense Department to seek congressional approval before transferring any new types of equipment under the surplus program and to maintain a public website that reports all transfers.

The proposed bill would also restrict the Homeland Security and Justice departments’ grant programs from giving money to cities to buy drones, surveillance equipment, ballistic helmets and lethal weapons.