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Militarized police cause concerns

The images last week of standoffs in Ferguson, Mo., look like something out of a war zone, with police officers using Humvees, tear gas and M4 rifles against protests sparked by the shooting of an unarmed teen in the St. Louis suburb.

The scenes underscore what some say is the militarization of police forces around the country, including Chicago and Cook County. Since the mid-1990s, a Department of Defense program has been funneling billions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment not being used in combat to city and state law enforcement agencies.

Chicago Police Department officials declined to comment on the exact amount of military vehicles and gear the department has, but spokesman Martin Maloney said in a statement that the CPD uses certain military-style vehicles—including a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, or MRAP—for specific purposes.

"An MRAP is only used in extreme circumstances, such as the standoff on Lake Shore Drive this spring," he said, speaking of the nearly nine-hour incident in March on Lake Shore Drive between murder suspect Joseph Andrew Felton Jr. and a SWAT team, "while helicopters are used primarily for visual surveillance, such [as] monitoring a suspect fleeing police."

A New York Times analysis of Department of Defense data shows that Cook County is among dozens of U.S. counties with thousands of pieces of surplus military equipment provided to law enforcement for free by the DOD.

The data shows that state and local police agencies in Cook County have at least 1,202 assault rifles, 324 body armor pieces, 112 night vision pieces, 54 pistols, three mine-related vehicles and one other armored vehicle. The equipment was acquired through the Federal Law Enforcement Support Office's 1033 program.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have criticized the program for putting weapons meant for war zones in the hands of law enforcement officers who have not been trained to use them, let alone adapt them for day-to-day domestic use.

"The army is not the same thing as the local police force. Their responsibilities are not the same, the threat of risk they have is not the same, so the notion that [they] are treating this equipment as easily transferable is really troubling," said Ed Yohnka, the director of public policy and communications for the ACLU of Illinois.

Yohnka said one of the ACLU's biggest concerns is the improper use of the weapons.

"There's that old expression, if all you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail," he said. "The only reason that you use that kind of equipment in that sort of setting is to send a message to people that they are going to be overwhelmed with force."

The Chicago Police Department is just one of the local agencies using military-grade equipment to fight crime. The Cook County Sheriff's Office has received ballistic armor and helmets, military rifles and a small armored vehicle to be used during hostage situations or when officers face an active shooter, according to sheriff's officials, who declined to answer questions about the amount of gear provided by the federal government, citing security concerns.

Some Chicagoans have noticed the presence of armored vehicles and other military-style gear on the city's streets, and believe the events in Ferguson should draw more attention to what military tactics are used in other cities.

"I did not sign up to live in a war zone, to live in a militarized zone. That doesn't feel like safety to me," said Mariame Kaba, an anti-violence activist and the founder of the community justice group Project NIA.

Kaba, who lives in Rogers Park, said one of her neighbors earlier this year was threatened by a police officer with an M16, a military assault rifle, and that her friends have shared photos on Facebook of armored vehicles rolling through the South Side.

"It just makes me feel more anxious, and it leads me to feeling unsafe in my own community," she said. "That notion that ‘it couldn't happen here' is universally thought by so many people, and people need to change that [mindset]."

Yohnka said he hopes new scrutiny on the use of military gear by local police forces brought about by events in Ferguson will bring about stricter regulations.

"The military makes this equipment available free of charge to state and local law agencies, and that means the citizens and voters never get a voice in whether that's appropriate," he said.

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