After meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Thursday night, a Missouri congressman said he expects the Pentagon will soon announce a review of a program that gives surplus military weapons to local police forces.
And he said he urged the administration to act unilaterally, without Congress's approval.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said he and fellow Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, who represents Ferguson and the surrounding area, told Hagel changes should be made to the Defense Department's 1033 program, under which excess military equipment is given to domestic police agencies. He said Hagel was measured, but agreed that their concerns are valid.
"The secretary said that he would receive our information and that he thought that some careful review might be necessary," Cleaver told National Journal. "I frankly believe that we will shortly hear that some kind of review is taking place."
"We would both be stunned if a review does not take place," he added.
Images of heavily armed police and up-armored military vehicles stymieing protesters in Ferguson following the shooting of an unarmed young man nearly two weeks ago have led the public and members of Congress from both parties to call for a demilitarization of local law enforcement.
Yet Cleaver said he has little hope Congress would enact a change to the National Defense Authorization Act limiting the program, so he told Hagel, "If the president has the authority to do this, we hope that he will."
"There's a question that even the secretary raised yesterday, and it was and is, 'Does the president have the authority to make the changes or do we have to go to Congress to make the changes?' " Cleaver said. "My comment was, 'I hope that the authority lies with the White House or the DOD, because as the world knows … even something that the overwhelming majority of Congress supports still might not see the light of day.'"
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday that Hagel has the authority to rescind equipment and limit the program, but said there is not a formal review underway. He was not asked about nor did he mention the 1033 program at a Friday press briefing at the Pentagon, according to the official transcript.
Yet coming just as House Speaker John Boehner files a lawsuit against President Obama for alleged executive overreach, Cleaver acknowledged that any administrative action would anger some of his colleagues.
Still, Cleaver said many of his colleagues would prefer not to vote on the issue anyway, especially since it would require many to cast a vote that could limit the production of munitions manufactured in their own districts.
Cleaver said he does not want to end the program outright, however. He told Hagel that cities such at New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington as well as border cities such as Brownsville and El Paso, Texas, have a legitimate need for heavy military equipment. But he told the secretary that there should be tighter restrictions on less-populated cities, particularly those that cannot afford to properly train their personnel.
"We told him that we believe that there is a legitimate use of some of the heavy equipment in cities that may unfortunately someday have to deal with sleeper cells or even powerful drug cartels," he said. "We also believe that there ought to be stringent training requirements before that equipment can go to a smaller community."
That puts Clay and Cleaver at odds with their colleague Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia who has said he will release a bill next month limiting outright the kinds of vehicles and weaponry that can be given to police forces through the program. Republican Sen. Rand Paul also has expressed support for an across-the-board demilitarization effort.
Cleaver said yet another problem with the program is a requirement that unless the equipment is used within one year it must be returned. He said that likely spurs police to use equipment unnecessarily.
"I think frankly a lot of these smaller operations will want to use it at any opportunity. Anecdotally, we've been told that some of that equipment has been used to issue warrants or to do search warrants," he said. "Whenever you have this kind of equipment, you're going to want to bring it out. It's a human trait. Nobody buys a suit just to hang in their closet. You're looking for a chance to wear it."