Congress

After Ferguson, senators question providing military gear to local police

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. holds his hands over his head in the manner of protesters during the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., as he questions witnesses during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on federal programs that equip state and local police with military equipment, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. holds his hands over his head in the manner of protesters during the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., as he questions witnesses during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on federal programs that equip state and local police with military equipment, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

Lawmakers on Tuesday harshly criticized federal programs that provide billions of dollars’ worth of military gear to state and local police but fail to track the equipment, require training or provide clear guidelines for its use.

“Supplying communities with the capacity to acquire military equipment with no requirements that officers are trained on the proper use of the equipment, little visibility into the actual needs or capabilities of local forces and inadequate guidelines directing their use may just be asking for the kind of over-militarization that we saw in Ferguson,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said at a Senate hearing.

McCaskill said she’d requested the hearing because she’d been shocked by scenes of helmeted officers in gas masks and body armor aiming sniper rifles and lobbing tear gas at civilians who were protesting the fatal shooting last month of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis being turned into a war zone,” McCaskill said.

The hearing focused scrutiny on three federal programs run by the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Justice. The programs provide military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, either directly or through grants.

The taxpayer-funded practice of equipping police with surplus Humvees, helicopters, ballistic vests and other military supplies dates to the 1990s, but it became increasingly well-funded and popular after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Pentagon program alone has provided more than $5 billion worth of equipment since 1990.

McCaskill complained that it’s impossible to tell how these taxpayer dollars are being spent because the agencies don’t track the purchases or keep adequate data.

“So we can’t know, just from asking these agencies, how much military equipment – or anything else – local law enforcement agencies are buying,” she said.

Alan Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said it wasn’t up to the Pentagon to make sure that law enforcement agencies properly maintained the gear or trained officers.

“We can’t manage local police departments,” he said.

McCaskill pressed Estevez to explain why 36 percent of the equipment the Department of Defense transfers to police departments is new or in “like-new” condition.

“What in the world are we doing buying things we’re not using?” she asked. “I guarantee you the stuff you’re giving away you’re continuing to buy. Why is that?”

Estevez said the Pentagon’s needs could change.

“As our budget changes, things we thought we would need we no longer need, or things we bought for the war . . . may no longer be needed,” he said.

“It doesn’t appear that buying equipment to give it away and then spending money to replace it is an effective use of DoD resources,” McCaskill responded.

Other senators were skeptical that police departments really needed all that gear for counterterrorism purposes.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had a heated exchange with Estevez about why 12,000 bayonets were provided to police departments.

“What purpose are bayonets given out for?” Paul asked.

Estevez said he couldn’t answer.

“I can answer that: None,” Paul said. “Really, this is crazy out of control.”

“We’re on dangerous ground of undermining the very principles that built the country,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “There is no role for the federal government in local and state police forces in our country.”

McCaskill asked why police departments have more mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles than the National Guard does.

Known as MRAPs, the heavily armored trucks were designed to withstand roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nationwide, police departments have received 624 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles from the Pentagon since 2011, while National Guard units have 60.

In Florida, police have 45 MRAPs. The Florida National Guard has zero. Kansas law enforcement agencies have received six MRAPs from the Pentagon since 2011. The Kansas National Guard has none.

Texas police have 73 MRAPs. The Texas National Guard has six. Local law enforcement agencies in Missouri have 20 MRAPs, but the Missouri National Guard has only six.

Asked by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., whether the Pentagon placed any restrictions on obtaining an MRAP, Estevez said he didn’t know.

“I’ll have to look into that,” he said.

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