New Jersey lawmakers question police military gear

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  • Source: Businessweek.com/Photograph by Abe Van Dyke/Corbis Police officers gather next to the Waukesha Sheriff Department's BearCat on Aug. 8, 2013 in Elm Grove, Wisc.



BY JILL COLVIN
Some New Jersey lawmakers are calling for a review of a program that has delivered millions of dollars in surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies following violent clashes between police and protesters in Missouri.

New Jersey counties have received hundreds of automatic rifles, as well as armored vehicles, night-vision binoculars and even a grenade launcher in shipments through the program, according to data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency. The equipment is valued at nearly $32 million, according to a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office.

Local law enforcement officials say the equipment can be life-saving — especially during natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy, when traditional police vehicles were inundated by floodwaters.

But some lawmakers, including Democratic state Sen. Nia Gill, are questioning the militarization of local police forces following the violence in Ferguson, Missouri touched off by the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old by police. Images of officers atop armored vehicles, dressed in military gear and carrying assault weapons have prompted questions from about the potential problems with arming local law enforcement with equipment meant for war — a practice Gill said she hadn't realized was so prevalent.

“I had no idea of the extent of the program," Gill said Monday. She wrote to a letter New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman on Friday asking him to review the state's administration of the program.

“I recognize that some of the supplies provided under the program may be useful to local departments; however, the equipment transferred includes armored vehicles, a grenade launcher and military-style assault weapons. This is equipment that appears suitable for war zones, not for our neighborhood streets," she wrote in the letter, which was first reported by The Star-Ledger newspaper.

Since the inception of program there have been no reported allegations of misuse of the de-commissioned equipment, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office. In fact, some of the equipment was used during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, “including some of the very vehicles highlighted in some recent press accounts," he said.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. said he recognized the potential use of some equipment in natural disasters, but called for a moratorium pending oversight hearings in Congress.

“While some of this may be used for civilian purposes, you have to question whether or not a lot this material is appropriate for a local police department," he said. “I think that the program has to be looked at again and there has to be some serious congressional oversight."

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