The review will likely include the Defense Department’s Excess Property program that is designed to give away tents, generators, pickup trucks and ATVs, as well as military aircraft, grenade launchers and heavily armed tactical vehicles. That program has distributed $4.3 billion worth of equipment since 1997, according to its Web site.
“Among other things, the president has asked for a review of whether these programs are appropriate,” said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the internal assessment. The review also will assess “whether state and local law enforcement are provided with the necessary training and guidance; and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of equipment obtained through federal programs and funding.”
The official said the review will be led by White House staff, including the Domestic Policy Council, the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, along with the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury. The administration’s plans were first reported by the New York Times on Saturday.
Obama’s order comes as criticism among Congress members, civil rights groups and media pundits over the heavy militarization of police departments in Ferguson and across the country. During the nearly two weeks of nightly protests in the St. Louis suburb after an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a policeman, officers dressed in riot gear employed armored vehicles, noise-based crowd-control devices, shotguns, M4 rifles like those used by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, rubber-coated metal pellets and tear gas.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said last week she will hold a congressional hearing in September to examine whether local police have become too militarized. “This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” she said.
“This equipment flowed to local police forces because they were increasingly being asked to assist in counterterrorism,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement Saturday. “But displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive. It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”
Transfers through the Pentagon’s 1033 program have increased dramatically in recent years.
In 2006, it made 34,708 transfers worth $33 million to law enforcement agencies. Last year, the number grew to 51,779 transfers valued at $420 million, according to data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the program. Through April of this year, the agency had made 15,516 transfers of equipment worth $206 million.
“Of all the equipment provided to law enforcement agencies through the LESO  program, only 5 percent are weapons,” DLA spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill said. Since the program started nearly two decades ago, it has transferred equipment valued at $5.1 billion.
The Ferguson Police Department has received a small amount through the program in recent years, including non-tactical items such as field packs, first-aid kits, wool blankets and medical supplies.
The Defense Department would not provide a breakdown of tactical items given to the Ferguson police exclusively but said that law enforcement agencies within St. Louis County — which includes Ferguson — have in recent years received a dozen 5.56mm rifles, half a dozen .45-caliber pistols, night-vision goggles and a bomb-disposing robot.
But 1033 is just one of a set of federal programs that have facilitated the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Justice and the lead author of a June report on the issue. Police departments also have access to billions of dollars in funding from the Justice and Homeland Security departments.
“The militarization of policing is actually not a new problem,” Dansky said.