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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Department of Defense program that distributes military surplus equipment such as mine resistant armored vehicles to local police came under scrutiny Wednesday by Utah lawmakers who want to know more as criticism grows around the country.
Legislators learned from the program's state coordinator and a Department of Public Safety leader that the federal government keeps intermittent tabs on the inventory of rifles, handguns and grenade launchers they've given out, but does not conduct checks on how the equipment is being used.
In fact, there are no rules or guidelines for what is deemed appropriate use of the equipment, Utah Department of Public Safety Colonel Daniel Fuhr said. He said the federal government relies on the professionalism and good common sense from law enforcement agencies.
That lack of oversight was among the concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah during the hearing. Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU, called the program a deliberate effort to militarize police across the country.
"The concern we have when we're talking about transferring military weapons and military tactics from the battle field to local communities is that we're not dealing with the same objectives," Lowe said. "When you're on the battlefield, you do have an enemy. . . When you are working in the community, the people you are serving are not necessarily your enemy."
The Pentagon's surplus program is not new but has been re-examined in recent months after police responded to Ferguson, Missouri, protesters with tear gas, armored trucks and in riot gear.
Fuhr defended the program, saying people like Lowe don't understand why the equipment is important because she hasn't been shot at or up against hardened criminals.
The Utah Department of Public Safety uses a mine resistant armored vehicle from the program to get officers close to people in hostage situations and keep everyone safe, said Fuhr, citing an example.
"Hold us accountable if we are using that equipment inappropriately. . . but never make them (officers) feel ashamed of the equipment they have and carry to keep themselves protected," Fuhr said. "I will never send a person out there unequipped for fear of the media getting after me or the ACLU."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, pushed back hard against Lowe's criticisms, chiding her for bringing the Ferguson shooting into the conversation and saying the program helps make sure police are armed to match the weapon power of those they confront.
"You have street gang members out there using AK47s," Ray said. "We have to be comparable to them."
Rep. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he doesn't have any major concerns with the program yet but would welcome increased oversight on inventories and how the equipment is being used.
It's not just police and sheriff's offices that get the equipment. At least 26 school districts across the country have participated in the program, with an increase coming after the Columbine school shooting in 1999.
Federal records show schools in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Granite School District in Utah obtained surplus military gear.
Now, amid increasing criticism, several school districts say they'll give some of the equipment back. Nearly two dozen education and civil liberties groups sent a letter earlier this week to the Pentagon and the Justice and Education Departments urging a stop to transfers of military weapons to school police.
In Utah, the Granite School District's police force has three, Vietnam-era M16s that it received in the program eight years ago, district spokesman Ben Horsley said. The weapons, which are not fully automatic, have only been used in training situations and are kept locked in police vehicles, he said.
The district has no plans to return them, he said. Their rationale is that they could save lives if somebody opens fire in one of the district's 92 schools, Horsley said. He said there are more than 100,000 civilian AR15s that are in the hands of people in Salt Lake County.
"We would want to make sure our officers are equipped with comparable weapons," Horsley said.