Lawmaker drafting bill to demilitarize local police

A Democratic congressman from Georgia is drafting legislation to limit a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement.

Rep. Hank Johnson is pushing the legislation amid the situation in Ferguson, Mo., where an armed police presence has taken to the streets after mass protests over a police shooting.

"Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s," Johnson wrote in a Dear Colleague letter sent Thursday to other members of Congress.

“As the tragedy in Missouri unfolds, one thing is clear. Our local police are becoming militarized,” Johnson's office said in a statement. 

Johnson said he will introduce the bill in September, when Congress returns from a five-week recess. He has been worked on the legislation for months, but his office said the current situation highlights the need for the bill. 

Police have been out in force in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed when he was shot by a police officer during a street confrontation.

The images coming out of Ferguson — which President Obama on Thursday called “deeply disturbing” — have spurred comparisons with a war zone, with heavily armed police officers pointing weapons at protesters. Some of the protesters have reportedly thrown Molotov cocktails at police.

"Is this a war zone or a US city?" Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted Wednesday evening, as reports emerged of police using smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Johnson criticized the Pentagon's '1033' program, which offers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement, including M16 rifles and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP).

He noted in the last several months those vehicles have been given to cities in Texas, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Illinois and Alabama.

"This trend is not only sweeping America's small cities, it's hitting American college campuses as well. Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP," he said. "Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy."

Johnson said his bill would limit the type of equipment that could be transferred and would make sure states track all equipment received.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson on Thursday pushed back on criticism of the police response.

"The whole picture is being painted a little bit sideways from what's happening," Jackson said.

"It's not military, it's tactical operations. It's SWAT teams. That's who's out there — police. We're doing this in blue."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles similarly defended police conduct, telling MSNBC he could not "second guess these officers."

Lawmakers aren’t convinced and are increasingly sounding the alarm about the new firepower being wielded by police departments.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a contender for the GOP nomination in 2016, on Thursday penned an op-ed for Time magazine blaming Washington for “using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies.”

"There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response," Paul wrote. "Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem."

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) on Thursday said the police response seen in Ferguson “has become the problem instead of the solution.”

McCaskill said that while she respected police working to provide safety, "my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right."

Obama said Thursday that "there is never an excuse for violence against police" but added that there was "no excuse for police to use excessive force."

—Updated 4:36 p.m.