Senators Find Bipartisanship in Being Pissed Off About Police Militarization

At a hearing Tuesday, lawmakers agreed on a need to rein in federal spending on local police departments.

At a hearing on Tuesday, senators were left with many questions about the state of police militarization around the country. But the hearing did allow for some bipartisan bonding.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.,who led the hearing, fiercely questioned the validity and transparency of the transfer and grant programs that bring Pentagon weapons and other gear to local police. And she was damning of the police reaction in Ferguson, Mo., after an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a white police officer. After Brown's death, Ferguson residents protested in the streets, only to be met by police officers toting assault rifles or peering down sniper sights from an armored truck. McCaskill said peaceful protesters in Ferguson "did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants" by police.

The police response in Ferguson has stoked a national conversation about the type of equipment and training local police officers in the U.S. receive. Through a program approved by Congress in the 1990s to fight the war on drugs, the Pentagon is allowed to give surplus equipment to local police departments free of charge. Other federal agencies, such as the Homeland Security and Justice departments, give grants to local police forces to buy equipment. Those grants are, on the whole, given without any request for accountability.

Although the Pentagon denies that any of its tactical equipment was used in the police force's response to the Ferguson protests, the so-called 1033 program has nonetheless come under lawmakers' scrutiny. And it's giving Democrats a reason to team up with fiscally conservative Republicans. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a deficit hawk, condemned the federal programs for providing funding and equipment to local agencies.

"There is no role for the federal government in state and local police forces in our country," Coburn said on Tuesday.

But representatives from the Pentagon, Homeland Security, and Justice defended their respective programs, saying the equipment provided by the federal government has saved officers' lives and combated domestic terrorism.

The equipment that police departments request can range from office furniture and microwaves, to armored trucks, night-vision goggles, and assault rifles. Alan Estevez—the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics—pointed out that the equipment police departments receive through the 1033 program isn't just used in tactical situations. In Louisiana, police used Humvees acquired through the transfer program to rescue 137 residents from flooding.

At one point in the hearing, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pointed out to Estevez that 12,000 bayonets were given out through the 1033 program, according to a report by National Public Radio. "What purpose are bayonets being given out for?" Paul asked.

"Senator, bayonets are available under the program," Estevez said. "I can't answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for."

Paul cut off Estevez: "I can give you an answer: None."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questioned what military equipment police would need to combat the war on drugs. "Decisions need to be made at the local level, not by the federal government," he said.

"We do this because we're asked to do this," Estevez said—a subtle jab at members of Congress, who passed the 1033 program in the first place, under the National Defense Authorization Act.

Johnson's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, also raised the question of how police militarization leads to the "deprivation of civil liberties." The agency representatives giving testimony did not have good answers to either of those questions.

The Justice Department distributes funding to local police departments through its Justice Assistance Grant, or JAG program. Body armor provided through the JAG program has saved the lives of more than 3,100 police officers, according to Karol Mason, a DOJ assistant attorney.

"We take great pains to see that funds are used appropriately and administered in the most transparent way possible," Mason said in prepared statements. She also said the DOJ is studying the "appropriate use" of body cameras on police officers, though the department has have not reached a conclusion. Officers in Ferguson have already begun wearing body cameras after companies donated approximately 50 cameras to the police department.

When McCaskill asked Mason, along with representatives from the Pentagon and Homeland Security, how their programs can be held accountable, they were mum. "Do any of you have any policy that requires you to track any kind of usage data for the equipment you're providing?" McCaskill asked. Both the Defense Department and the Homeland Security representatives said no, while Mason said Justice keeps activity reports for JAG fund recipients.

Communication among the various federal agencies that give money and equipment to local police forces is a separate problem. "There's probably a failure in coordination," Estevez said. Prompted by McCaskill, the three representatives from Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense admitted they had never met each other before.

Other military-grade equipment was used in the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. As Coburn pointed out, however, the equipment didn't actually lead the police to locate Tsarnaev—a homeowner suspected Tsarnaev was hiding in his boat and contacted police.

More than 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected trucks, or MRAPs, have been given to state and local law-enforcement agencies since 2006. According to McCaskill, at least 13 police departments with fewer than 10 full-time officers received an MRAP in the past three years.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency, more than a third of equipment that the Pentagon has given away to police departments—36 percent—was brand new. "If any of it is brand new, there's a real question about what are we doing," McCaskill said. "Why are we buying things only to give them away?"

Estevez explained that often, as the Pentagon's budget changes, "things that we thought we would need, we no longer need." Of course, it's difficult to calculate how much the use of military-grade equipment in local police forces has helped to deter acts of terror, if at all. The Pentagon boasts the biggest budget of any military in the world. Often, the protocol seems to be, "Buy first, ask questions later."

But just because a bipartisan group of senators agrees that this is a problem doesn't mean legislative action is imminent. Radley Balko, a journalist and expert on police militarization, has written about the upsides and downsides of bipartisanship on the issue.

"In terms of left, right, libertarian, everyone seems to agree that there's a problem, but then you go to politicians, and nobody cares. Nobody is interested," Balko told Salon last year. "The Republicans want to be tough on crime, and Democrats—police unions are very influential with them. Also, I think, on a bipartisan level, every congressman likes to put out that press release, announcing he's just procured $500,000 for our local heroes in blue. The local newspapers write it up, and it looks good for the community. That's a difficult thing to wean them off of."