Rep. Cleaver: Expect Obama Administration Review of Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program

The Missouri congressman met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Thursday night.

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest 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.
National Journal
Daniel Newhauser
Aug. 22, 2014, 11:28 a.m.

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.”

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