In the aftermath of clashes between heavily armed police forces and protesters in Ferguson, MO, the Senate will review the nearly twenty-five year old law that promotes the transfer of surplus military goods to police forces, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on Friday.
The tensions in Ferguson after the death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of the police in a shooting that still has many questions left unresolved have been punctuated by the collision of protesters and the Ferguson police force. On Wednesday evening, the local police displayed a wide-ranging array of gear that would normally be considered outside the scope of traditional policing, including armored personnel carriers, high-powered sniper rifles, and sirens capable of emitting deafening noises. Though the Missouri Highway Patrol was brought in to takeover from the local law enforcement, APCs and tear gas were still deployed against demonstrators and looters violating the state-imposed curfew alike, and the images of full body-armor clad police facing unarmed protestors have become iconic.
The level of armament on display was enough to concern Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Specifically, Levin has an issue with how the 1990 law designed to provide this hardware to police in helping out in the War On Drugs has been carried out. Under the so-called 1033 program, more than 8,000 state and local law enforcement agencies have taken part in purchasing more than $4 billion worth of this surplus, according to the Department of Defense. Just how apocable some of this material is for everyday crime-fighting is questionable, as Stars and Stripes noted a “county in Ohio bought an Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle in June for $6,000 — the towering trucks used to protect troops from roadside bombs in Iraq cost the military $535,000 or more apiece.”
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals,” Levin said in a statement released Friday. “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents. 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.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is considered one of the most reliable bills to come through Congress, given its usually bipartisan nature overall and its status as a “must-pass” bill. As such, it often used as a vehicle to deal with contentious issues such as torture, the use of force overseas, and detention at Guantanamo Bay. The Senate passed its version of the FY 2015 NDAA in May, leaving the full Senate now able to offer amendments before final passage.
At present, the state of Missouri — and every other state in the Union — has access to a veritable grab-bag of military surplus gear. “A small sample of the types of items issued in the past to participating agencies are aircraft (both fixed wing and rotary) and four-wheel drive vehicles (such as pickup trucks, blazers, ambulances and armored personnel carriers),” a page on the Missouri government’s website touting the program and encouraging law enforcement to apply for it reads. “The armored personnel carriers are used for S.W.A.T. teams along with victim an officer recovery. Ballistic helmets and vests are issued for officer safety. BDU clothing (including Nomex fire retardant), boots, wet weather and cold weather clothing, canteens, and web belts are some of the types of field gear items issued for marijuana eradication. Binoculars, radios, camcorders, and tv/vcr combinations are used for tactical and intelligence gathering operations.”
So far, however, it appears the review in Congress will be one-sided. The NDAA is a bicameral affair, requiring both the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate version to match up in the final review. So while Levin has spoken out about the need to review the arms transfers, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) has introduced a separate bill in the House, his counterpart in the House — Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon — has remained silent on the matter of Ferguson and arms transfers.