Congress Isn’t Ending the Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program Anytime Soon

Some are calling for a legislative response amid the Ferguson firestorm.

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 13: A police officer, identity concealed, stands watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
National Journal
Aug. 14, 2014, 3:12 p.m.

High-pro­file law­makers are cri­ti­ciz­ing a fed­er­al pro­gram that puts mil­it­ary equip­ment in the hands of loc­al law en­force­ment, a re­ac­tion to the chaos and po­lice crack­down in Fer­guson, Mo.

But that doesn’t mean Con­gress is go­ing to do any­thing about it.

Rep. John Con­yers, the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, and two of his Demo­crat­ic col­leagues are ask­ing com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte to con­vene hear­ings on the mil­it­ar­iz­a­tion of po­lice forces. And Demo­crat­ic Rep. Hank John­son of Geor­gia said Thursday he will in­tro­duce a bill that would lim­it the kinds of mil­it­ary equip­ment loc­al po­lice forces can ac­quire.

Liber­tari­an-lean­ing Re­pub­lic­ans are join­ing the chor­us as well. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rand Paul penned a piece for Time protest­ing the “car­toon­ish im­bal­ance between the equip­ment some po­lice de­part­ments pos­sess and the con­stitu­ents they serve,” and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan spoke out against po­lice mil­it­ar­iz­a­tion via Twit­ter as well.

The re­sponse from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, however, has been meas­ured or nonex­ist­ent, sug­gest­ing the is­sue is un­likely to make the agenda when Con­gress re­turns from re­cess in Septem­ber. And even if it does, the pro­gram that con­nects po­lice forces to mil­it­ary equip­ment has well-placed de­fend­ers in Con­gess.

At is­sue is the “1033 pro­gram,” a De­fense De­part­ment pro­gram that trans­fers ex­cess mil­it­ary equip­ment to law-en­force­ment agen­cies through the Pentagon’s De­fense Lo­gist­ics Agency Law En­force­ment Sup­port Of­fice, or LESO.

“This pro­gram pro­tects tax­pay­ers, and it pro­tects our na­tion’s law en­force­ment men and wo­men as they do a dan­ger­ous job,” said John Noon­an, a spokes­man for the Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, which has jur­is­dic­tion over the pro­gram.

“In cer­tain cir­cum­stances, the De­fense De­part­ment trans­fers sur­plus equip­ment to law en­force­ment””when DHS among oth­er agen­cies de­term­ines the equip­ment is suit­able to law en­force­ment activ­it­ies. The vast ma­jor­ity of what is ac­tu­ally trans­ferred tends to be soft. It is items like ra­di­os and uni­forms and of­fice sup­plies.”

John­son’s meas­ure would lim­it the types of equip­ment the pro­gram could trans­fer to po­lice forces, as well as re­quire states to cer­ti­fy they could ac­count for all equip­ment.

“Be­fore an­oth­er small town’s po­lice force gets a $700,000 gift from the De­fense De­part­ment that it can’t main­tain or man­age, it be­hooves us to reign in [sic] the Pentagon’s 1033 pro­gram and re­vis­it the mer­its of a mil­it­ar­ized Amer­ica,” John­son wrote in a “dear col­league” let­ter Thursday.

A change to the pro­gram would come via a tweak to the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which in­cludes a pro­vi­sion al­low­ing the De­fense De­part­ment to trans­fer the equip­ment to loc­al po­lice forces. In 2013 the agency trans­ferred about $450 mil­lion worth of equip­ment to law-en­force­ment agen­cies, ac­cord­ing to LESO’s web­site.

Yet ac­cord­ing to a Cap­it­ol Hill source with know­ledge of the pro­gram, just 5 per­cent of the equip­ment trans­fers con­sist of weapons while tac­tic­al vehicles made up only 0.35 per­cent of the trans­fers.

The source also played down the pro­gram’s re­spons­ib­il­ity for the up-ar­mored, ri­ot-gear-clad po­lice in Fer­guson. In Novem­ber, DOD provided two non-ar­mored Hum­vees, a cargo trail­er, and a gen­er­at­or to the Fer­guson Po­lice De­part­ment, ac­cord­ing the source.

St. Louis County po­lice, however, re­ceived twelve 5.56 mil­li­meter rifles and six .45-caliber pis­tols from the De­fense De­part­ment, ac­cord­ing to USA Today.

The im­ages of heav­ily ar­mored and weapon­ized po­lice put­ting down pro­test­ers in Fer­guson shared by news out­lets and so­cial me­dia have stirred up a wide­spread crit­ic­al re­sponse, and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er weighed in Thursday.

“At a time when we must seek to re­build trust between law en­force­ment and the loc­al com­munity, I am deeply con­cerned that the de­ploy­ment of mil­it­ary equip­ment and vehicles sends a con­flict­ing mes­sage. At my dir­ec­tion, de­part­ment of­fi­cials have con­veyed these con­cerns to loc­al au­thor­it­ies,” Hold­er said in a state­ment.

Earli­er in the week, Con­yers, along with Demo­crat­ic Rep. Wil­li­am Lacy Clay, who rep­res­ents the Fer­guson area, and Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus Chair­wo­man Mar­cia Fudge, wrote a let­ter to Hold­er ask­ing that the Justice De­part­ment in­vest­ig­ate the po­ten­tial civil-rights vi­ol­a­tions of the Brown shoot­ing and sur­round­ing events.

House Speak­er John Boehner raised sim­il­ar con­cerns in a state­ment, say­ing, “I strongly sup­port a full and thor­ough in­vest­ig­a­tion of the events sur­round­ing [Brown’s] death, and sub­sequent ac­tions, in­clud­ing the de­ten­tion of journ­al­ists cov­er­ing this heart­break­ing situ­ation.”

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