Pentagon: Hagel has authority to suspend program that arms cops

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has the authority to suspend a program that sends surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

"The secretary has the authority to rescind and take back equipment that is transferred to local law enforcement agencies if he deems fit. He has that authority," said Pentagon Rear Adm. John Kirby. 

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Kirby said there had been no move towards suspending the program, but said that Hagel had asked officials to provide him with more information. He stressed that the Pentagon has not yet launched a formal review.

"The secretary has been mindful of the public debate and discussion about this issue and asked his staff this morning for some additional information about the program," said Kirby. "He has been given an information paper that provides some more detail to it, and he's consuming that now."

The Pentagon is under fire for the program that allows it to transfer excess equipment to local law enforcement agencies, after police in Ferguson, Mo., used military weaponry to crack down on protesters. Protesters have clashed with police over the past week, after an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

Lawmakers and President Obama have also raised concerns about the “militarization” of the nation’s police after the law enforcement response in Ferguson, which saw cops in armored vehicles firing tear gas at protesters. Critics called the police actions heavy-handed.

President Obama said Monday that he also wanted to take a closer look at the program.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has also said he would review the program when the upper chamber takes up the defense authorization bill.

Kirby said the program had been suspended in the past for some states that had lost track of military equipment. The equipment supplied to local law enforcement agencies under the Pentagon's 1033 program eventually is returned to the department and needs to be accounted for. 

He was unsure, however, if the Defense Department had ever taken back military weaponry provided to local law enforcement ahead of schedule.

Kirby said that, since 2007, the Pentagon has provided the Ferguson Police Department with two Humvees, one generator and one cargo trailer.

The St. Louis County Police Department has received six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, an [explosives ordnance disposal] robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and two night-vision devices.

Kirby said how the equipment is used is up to local law enforcement agencies to determine and cautioned, "let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here." 

"This has been on the books since 1991. And many, many law enforcement agencies have benefited from it," he said of the program.

This story was updated at 4:19 p.m.