Congress Discusses Police Use Of Military Gear After Ferguson

Congress began discussing police use of military gear during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Tuesday. U.S. government programs were set up after 9/11 to help local police obtain military equipment, but now lawmakers are questioning the decision in light of situations like Ferguson, Missouri.

The Associated Press reports that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) asked officials from the Homeland Security, Defense and Justice departments, “How do they decide an MRAP is appropriate?” More than 600 of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles have been given to local authorities in recent years.

Sen. Coburn added, “It’s not a truck. It is a… offensive weapon.” The vehicles are just part of more than $5.1 billion in military equipment given to local authorities since 1990.

The scrutiny by Congress comes after weeks of violent conflict in Ferguson between police and protesters upset about the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) added at the hearing:

“These programs were established with a very good intention: to provide equipment that would help law enforcement perform their duties. The question is whether what our police receive matches what they truly need to uphold the law.”

While many have questioned police use of military gear, the New York Times notes that the Department of Homeland Security recalled the turmoil and aftermath of last year’s bombing near the Boston Marathon finish line. Police officers wore camouflage, masks, and full body armor as they searched door-to-door for the bombers.

Brian Kamoie, a senior Homeland Security grand administrator, noted, “Grant funds provided to Massachusetts and to Boston saved lives and restored and ensured public safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.”

While the grants have certainly saved lives, Tuesday’s hearing revealed bipartisan skepticism about why local police agencies need equipment like automatic weapons, sniper rifles, and armored personal vehicles. Sen. Coburn countered, “When was the last time we have seen what you have given been used… other than the response to [Boston], against counterterrorism? When was another time?”

The military equipment is intended to be used for anti-drug or terrorism-related incidents only. However, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) worries police departments are increasingly relying on military equipment for situations against protesters, like in Ferguson. Paul commented:

“They think these are for riot suppression. There have been maybe two instances of terrorism and we’ve spent billions and billions of dollars. Really [this gear] shouldn’t be on anyone’s list of authorized equipment.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MS) also questioned why 36 percent of the equipment given to police departments was new. She asked, “What in the world are we doing buying things we don’t use? I guarantee, the stuff you are giving away, you are continuing to buy.”

There is no federal oversight for training of military equipment given to police forces, a fact that lawmakers also noted.

[Image: Hampton Roads]