FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - A U.S. military program that sends armoured cars, camouflage and other battlefield equipment to police departments is under fresh scrutiny as demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, enter their fifth straight night of protests over the death of an unarmed black teenager.
The hundreds of people who have gathered each night since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by an unnamed police officer last Saturday have been met with police clad in body armour and using tear gas, smoke bombs and stun grenades.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said it was clear the scenes playing out in the St. Louis suburb "cannot continue." And while he condemned acts of violence and looting by some protesters, he said it was the role of law enforcement to reduce tensions in the city, rather than exacerbate them.
"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," Holder said.
Ferguson, along with many other U.S. communities, has taken part in the Pentagon's Excess Property Program, known as 1033, which distributes surplus military equipment to police. The program began in the early 1990s to assist anti-drug efforts and grew after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A report released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," documents the flow of armoured robots, military-style rifles and tactical vehicles to local police departments.
The program has proved popular with police forces across the country, with local officials saying it saves them money and offers valuable equipment that helps protect police officers.
Through the program, Arizona's Maricopa County has amassed a stockpile of 120 assault rifles, five armoured vehicles and 10 helicopters, the ACLU report found. The city of North Little Rock, Arkansas, obtained 34 automatic and semiautomatic rifles, two robots designed for Afghanistan and ground troop helmets.
'GOING INTO BATTLE'
"What we're seeing in Ferguson is a reflection of the militarization of American policing," said Kara Dansky, senior counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. "They're trained to think of what they do as going into battle."
Asked about the program at a Defense Department news briefing on Thursday, a spokesman said the program had proven useful because it allows U.S. law enforcement to reuse military equipment that would otherwise go to waste.
"That said, it is up to law enforcement agencies to speak to how and what they gain through this system. And I'm not going to inject the Pentagon into this discussion," Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
The response to Brown's death was almost immediate, with hundreds of people gathering at the site to condemn the decision by the overwhelmingly white Ferguson Police Department to not release the name of the officer who shot Brown.
In the ensuing days, demonstrators in the majority black town have gathered to hold vigils, often reciting the chant: "Hands up, don't shoot."
But the police response has generally been regarded as fierce. Early on Wednesday, a protester was shot and critically wounded after police said he pointed a gun. The next night, two journalists covering the protests were arrested at a McDonald's - and then quickly released.
President Barack Obama, in an attempt to defuse tensions in Ferguson, called on police to respect peaceful demonstrations.
"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," Obama said.
"There's also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights," he said.
Military veterans have taken to social media to marvel, and in some cases express dismay, at the tactical supplies being used in Ferguson.
"I led foot patrols in downtown Baquba, #Iraq in 2005-06 w/less firepower than #Ferguson PD," tweeted Phillip Carter, the director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Local authorities initially defended the response.
But facing a chorus of criticism, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Thursday said the town had come to resemble a war zone, and he named a black Missouri Highway Patrol captain to oversee security in Ferguson.
Meanwhile in Ferguson, people described the police response to the protests as unnecessary and over the top.
"We can’t even protest peacefully in our own neighbourhoods where we pay taxes without being subjected to tear gas and rubber bullets," said Al Cole, 36, a salesman. "There was no need to treat unarmed protesters that way. None."
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Washington and Edith Honan in New York; Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Beech)