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Two California cities to give up military vehicles, amid local unease

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two Northern California cities have made plans to rid themselves of armored vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs that their police got for free from the U.S. Defense Department, in a move that follows criticism of the police handling of protests in Missouri as too militarized.

Officials in San Jose and Davis took steps to jettison their so-called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles this week.

Also in recent days, a sheriff in New Jersey said he would stop the acquisition of a similar vehicle, and two police departments in North Carolina announced plans to hold forums to hear concerns about law enforcement's militarization.

Much of the controversy over the use of military equipment centers on the Pentagon's excess property program, which gives unused equipment to police forces across the country. The program has come under scrutiny after protests over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, where rifle-toting police in armored vehicles faced off against demonstrators in a response critics say helped fuel outrage.

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the program, a senior administration official said last week.

In Davis, a college town near the California state capital of Sacramento, officials say residents' unease over the mine-resistant vehicle was heightened by controversy over a university police officer's pepper spraying of seated protesters in 2011.

On Tuesday, dozens of residents spoke at a Davis City Council meeting to press it to jettison the military vehicle, and the council voted 3-1 to ask the police department to come up with a plan to do that.

"This vehicle symbolizes very destructive forces, and I think it creates fear to bring it into the community,” City Council member Robb Davis said in a phone interview.

Davis police chief Landy Black at the meeting defended his department's acquisition of the vehicle, saying it would protect civilians and officers. A number of police officials in the United States have cited the proliferation of high-powered rifles as a reason why they need military equipment.

In San Jose, assistant chief of police Edgardo Garcia sent city leaders an email on Thursday saying his department would return a mine-resistant vehicle to the Department of Defense. Garcia mentioned "community perceptions of such a vehicle" as one factor in the decision.

The police force in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also has moved to give up a mine-resistant vehicle.

U.S. police forces began receiving the vehicles in large numbers in 2013, said Kara Dansky, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a report this year titled "War Comes Home," the ACLU said hundreds of law-enforcement agencies appear to have received the vehicles, but Dansky said the organization has not obtained an exact count.

"Our concern in our investigation was the use of paramilitary vehicles and tactics, like using armored vehicles to engage in ordinary law enforcement activities like searching people's homes for drugs,” Dansky said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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