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St. Louis police spend big money on riot gear, just in case

With a grand jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown looming, police are spending big money on riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014. (Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 13, 2014.

Within just a few weeks a grand jury is expected to have a decision on whether or not to indict the police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer.

Everyone from local school leaders, business owners and protesters who have been rallying for justice for Brown are bracing for that decision. But it seems local police have invested more than big-picture introspection and worry over the pending decision: They've invested big money.

The St. Louis County Police Department, which took over the investigation into Brown’s shooting death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and led crowd control efforts during the mass protest that broke out after, has spent $172,669 preparing for a riot scenario if Wilson isn't indicted.

RELATED: Ferguson schools weigh in on grand jury timing

In details first published in The Guardian, the county police spent the bulk of that money on tear gas and smoke grenades, rubber bullets and various riot gear, including so-called “hornets nest” sting grenades, which spray a chemical agent while simultaneously shooting out rubber bullets when detonated.

The cost details of the St. Louis County Police Department's spending after Brown’s death, and in the lead up to a decision by the grand jury, were confirmed by department spokesman Sgt. Brian Schellman with NBC News. The purchases were made between August and October.

“We purchase these items in hopes that we never have to use any of them,” Schellman told The Guardian. “But it is our responsibility to have proper equipment to keep our police officers and all citizens safe should violence break out anywhere at any time.”

Specifically, the county police spent a reported $18,000 on 1,500 “beanbag rounds” and 6,000 pepper balls that release a chemical irritant when they explode; $77,500 on 25 batons, 60 sets of shin guards, 135 shields and 235 riot gear helmets. Another $2,300 was spent on 2,000 sets of plastic handcuffs.

About $50,000 has been set aside by the department to fix police vehicles damaged during protests, though Schellman said the repairs would be held off until the unrest swirling around the case has settled.

The heavy-handed and highly-militarized response from police to angry, yet mostly peaceful, protesters has drawn scrutiny from state and federal officials, as well as the scorn of international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which released a scathing report last week on the allegations of widespread police abuses.

On Monday, the PEN American Center, a group that advocates on behalf of press freedoms, alleged that police violated the rights of media covering the protests in Ferguson with arrests, and physical and verbal threats.

RELATED: Ferguson protesters brace for possible no indictment in Michael Brown case

During the height of unrest and protests, police blocked streets with mine-resistant armored trucks, some topped with police snipers peering down the barrel of their rifles at peaceful protesters. In other incidents, police have threatened the lives of protesters and members of the press while aiming assault rifles at them.

In the wake of violent confrontations between protesters and well-armed police, U.S. Sen. Clair McCaskill of Missouri called for a “de-militarization” of police in Ferguson and later led a senate hearing on the militarization of local police departments across the country.

According to testimony at the hearing in September, the federal government each year sends local departments more than $1 billion in equipment and grants to purchase weaponry, with little oversight whatsoever. Federal officials testified at the hearing that they had no real way to track “military-grade” equipment purchased by local police forces with federal dollars — and even less oversight on weapons supplied via a Pentagon program that offers surplus military equipment for little or no cost.

"How in the world can anyone say that this program has one lick of oversight?" McCaskill said, blasting the officials during the hearing.

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of federal programs that help state and local law enforcement acquire military equipment, as well as analysis to determine if those programs are appropriate and if police are adequately trained to use the equipment.

"There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said in late August, a couple weeks after Brown’s death. "That would be contrary to our traditions."