Public Safety & Justice

Obama Vows to Review Militarization of Police

by | August 19, 2014
Police wearing riot gear walk with their guns pointed at a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Mo.
Police wearing riot gear walk with their guns pointed at a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Mo. AP/Jeff Roberson
 

By Chuck Raasch

The House of Representatives in June rejected a proposal to rein in a program to send excess military equipment to local police departments. The program has been criticized in connection with police response to demonstrations in Ferguson.

Five of six members of the House from the St. Louis area voted against an amendment to a Pentagon budget bill offered by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., which failed by a vote of 355-62. Here is an analysis by the independent campaign donations oversight group MapLight of the vote, and of defense-industry donations to members of the House.

Among the members voting against it were Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who has been among the most vocal critics of what he calls a "militarized" police response in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 police shooting death of Michael Brown, 18.

"The scenes that we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, this past week, with a militarized police force facing down innocent protesters with sniper rifles and machine guns is totally unacceptable in America," Clay told CNN on Sunday.

On Monday, asked about his June vote against limiting the program, Clay responded with this statement: "Over 350 members of Congress voted against Mr. Grayson's amendment. I don't regret the vote. But I strongly object to a tactical police unit pointing military sniper rifles and automatic weapons at my unarmed constituents who were peacefully exercising their constitutional rights."

Clay also said he would "be meeting personally with Secretary of Defense (Chuck) Hagel to discuss over-militarization of local police and my very serious concerns about the transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies."

Clay briefed Democratic House colleagues Monday morning in a conference call, and the military transfer program came up, according to a Clay spokesman.

In a short press conference Monday at the White House, President Barack Obama said many police departments "understandably" beefed up their capabilities against "potential catastrophic" attacks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But Obama said it is now "useful to review" how the military surplus program and federal grants for homeland security are administered. He said he anticipates a "bipartisan interest in re-examining some of these programs."

Grayson's amendment would have prohibited the Pentagon from transferring to local police aircraft, including unmanned aircraft; armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines or nuclear weapons.

"These weapons have no place on our streets regardless of who may be deploying them," Grayson said before the June 19 vote.

Citing federal data, the Post-Dispatch reported last week that various police agencies in St. Louis County received 12 5.56mm rifles and six .45-caliber pistols between Aug. 2, 2010, and Feb. 13, 2013 though what is called the 1033 program. County agencies also received 15 "reflex" gun sights, four night vision devices and three night sights, as well as a $10,000 explosive ordnance robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and three cargo trailers. According to federal data, one helicopter alone was originally worth $200,000.

Nationally, $4.3 billion in surplus military equipment has been transferred to local police agencies.

The only St. Louis-area member of the House to vote for the Grayson amendment was Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

The Illinois congressman released the following statement Monday:

"As troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, it makes sense to transfer certain kinds of surplus equipment to cash-strapped local emergency responders who can be trained to use these resources responsibly. Things like ballistic helmets and vests, lifesaving equipment and ambulances, pickup trucks, radios, computers and other communications equipment shouldn't go to waste when the military no longer needs them. But other items, like drones, bombs and rockets covered under the Grayson amendment, meet few local law enforcement needs. Congress should carefully review the kinds of equipment made available under DOD transfer programs."

Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth; Bill Enyart, D-Belleville; and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, voted against the Grayson amendment.

"I support our law enforcement and believe the local police should be able to decide what resources they need to keep the public and themselves safe," Wagner said Monday in a statement issued by her office. "As a society, we should continue to have a healthy debate about when and how it is appropriate to use such tactics."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has also questioned the militarization of police during the Ferguson crisis, is "currently looking at ideas for how to limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments, and to strengthen oversight over such transfers when they do occur," her spokesman, John LaBombard, said Monday.

He said he expects a Homeland Security subcommittee that McCaskill chairs will look into the program when Congress returns in September, and possible legislation could ensue.

McCaskill briefed Attorney General Eric Holder on the conditions in Ferguson Sunday night and did the same Monday morning with White House officials, LaBombard said.

"Her takeway is simply that the federal piece of this investigation is going to be critically important," LaBombard said.

(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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