The Senate’s Scattershot Approach to Ferguson

Lawmakers are pursuing a subcommittee hearing, a bill, and review of a Defense program, but nothing is expected to pass when senators return in September.

A police officer keeps watch over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, has experienced three days of violent protests since the killing.  
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Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Aug. 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

Even be­fore At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er and the Justice De­part­ment have wrapped up their in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the leth­al shoot­ing of Mi­chael Brown in Fer­guson, Mo., some sen­at­ors are plan­ning a le­gis­lat­ive re­sponse for when Con­gress re­turns next month.

No single meas­ure has so far emerged as a con­sensus le­gis­la­tion, and it’s un­clear wheth­er Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id in­tends to in­tro­duce any­thing in the Sen­ate. A spokes­man for Re­id did not com­ment.

But, in a sign that the emo­tions and out­cry around Fer­guson will carry in­to Septem­ber, some law­makers have already be­gun an­noun­cing their plans.

On Thursday, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri said she will con­vene a Fin­an­cial and Con­tract­ing Over­sight Sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing in Septem­ber to “ex­am­ine fed­er­al pro­grams that en­able loc­al po­lice de­part­ments to ac­quire mil­it­ary equip­ment,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from her of­fice.

That par­tic­u­lar is­sue has grabbed head­lines since Brown’s fatal shoot­ing by a Fer­guson po­lice of­ficer and dur­ing the en­su­ing protests, when of­ficers de­ployed what many de­scribed as mil­it­ar­ized equip­ment, in­clud­ing tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets.

In a show of just how high-pro­file Fer­guson and po­lice re­sponse have be­come, Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, a po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tender, even penned an op-ed in Time un­der the head­line “We Must De­mil­it­ar­ize the Po­lice.”

Mc­Caskill plans to in­vite vari­ous stake­hold­ers to the hear­ing, ac­cord­ing to the state­ment, with more de­tails ex­pec­ted soon.

Still, a bill deal­ing with po­lice mil­it­ar­iz­a­tion seems un­likely to make it to the Sen­ate floor. In an in­ter­view with a Nevada tele­vi­sion sta­tion this week, Re­id soun­ded sup­port­ive of the use of mil­it­ary equip­ment in po­lice de­part­ments na­tion­wide.

“The is­sue is this: Wheth­er we should al­low sur­plus equip­ment the mil­it­ary has to go to po­lice de­part­ments. I say yes,” Re­id said on the show Nevada News­makers. “We have po­lice de­part­ments all over the coun­try, in­clud­ing those in Nevada, who are des­per­ate for more re­sources. And the mere fact that you have the equip­ment doesn’t mean that you have to use it.”

Des­pite Re­id’s po­s­i­tion, Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in of Michigan prom­ised a re­view of the law that al­lows the Pentagon to sell its equip­ment to po­lice de­part­ments.

“We in­ten­ded this equip­ment to keep po­lice of­ficers and their com­munit­ies safe from heav­ily armed drug gangs and ter­ror­ist in­cid­ents,” Lev­in said in a state­ment. “Be­fore the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill comes to the Sen­ate floor, we will re­view this pro­gram to de­term­ine if equip­ment provided by the De­fense De­part­ment is be­ing used as in­ten­ded.”

It is a po­ten­tially cru­cial point, since both cham­bers of Con­gress and mem­bers of both parties as­sume the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion will be passed be­fore the end of the year.

Mean­while, in­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont linked the shoot­ing with youth un­em­ploy­ment and he plans to in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion on that front. His pro­pos­al would in­clude $4 bil­lion to the Labor De­part­ment for grants aimed at set­ting up sum­mer and year-round job op­por­tun­it­ies for poor youth. His bill would also in­clude $1.5 bil­lion for com­pet­it­ive grants to loc­al com­munit­ies for work-based train­ing, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter Sanders sent to his col­leagues.

“If we are go­ing to re­duce youth vi­ol­ence and in­still hope and a bright fu­ture for the young people in this coun­try, we have got to provide them with the jobs and the skills they need to pay for a col­lege edu­ca­tion to and to move up the eco­nom­ic lad­der,” Sanders wrote.

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