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Militarization of Local Police Departments Goes Before Senate Homeland Security Committee

Claire McCaskill's Flickr Page

Armed with a "laundry list of questions," U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will lead the Senate Homeland Security Committee Tuesday in a hearing to examine the militarization of local police departments. The hearing follows public outrage over what some saw as an excessive police response to protests in Ferguson following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white Ferguson police officer.

Three different federal departments have programs to help local police departments acquire military-type hardware, including armored vehicles, and tactical gear and weapons.

“I don’t think there’s been adequate oversight of these programs,” said McCaskill.

While most lawmakers have focused on the Department of Defense 1033 program, other programs at the departments of Homeland Security and Justice also help local communities obtain such equipment. McCaskill says she wants to know whether these programs are “working together" or at cross purposes.

"Are we duplicating efforts, are they augmenting one another, complementing one another?” she asked.

President Barack Obama has already ordered the Pentagon to review its 1033 program. Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said in a media briefing last month that 95 percent of the equipment made available to local police departments through the program consists of office equipment, furniture and communications equipment. 

Representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice are listed among the witnesses scheduled to testify before Tuesday’s hearing. Other witnesses include representatives from law enforcement organizations, the NAACP and a photo journalist with the St. Louis American newspaper, among others.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio last week, McCaskill said, “I am not going into this assuming that all of these programs are bad or that they’re a waste or that some of them haven’t done good, but I saw first-hand where some of this equipment contributed to the problem, rather than solving the problem.”

Changes to these programs may find support among some Senate Republicans. In a recent opinion piece in Time, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, had strong words against the militarization of the police:

"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement."

House members are also scrutinizing the militarization of local police departments. 

As we reported earlier, U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, have both met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to discuss the issue. Afterward, they said in a statement:

“If there is any good that can come out of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, our hope is that this effort will spur a national discussion about how to achieve a fundamental shift in local law enforcement, away from military-style responses, and towards a more community-based policy.”

Concern about this issues goes beyond members of our local delegation. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been looking into the issue since early this year.

Johnson wants to “rein in the 1033 program," said his spokesperson Carole Mumford. "Not to abolish it, but to put certain limitations on what can be obtained through the program.” Johnson also wants to establish “strict auditing requirements” for equipment once it is in the hands of local agencies so that such equipment can be tracked. 

Johnson is very concerned about what he considers the lack of local oversight. “A police department can unilaterally order this stuff and this includes MRAPS and grenade launchers and all kinds of really militarized items and their city council may not even know,” said Mumford.