Hearings concerning oversight of tactical gear issued by the federal government to state and local police departments began this morning, and moments of earnestness and accountability were few and far between. The three witnesses before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs each read testimony professing that their respective programs were beneficial, even indispensable, to law enforcement agencies and that the programs had mechanisms in place to prevent misappropriation of grant money and equipment. Examples were given when military equipment was used responsibly and efficaciously, such as rescue efforts during Hurricane Sandy and the manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The purpose of the programs, testimony argued, was the promotion of increased law enforcement efficiency in responding to disasters and the overall safety of both police personnel and citizens.
That tune changed promptly once questioning began, and witnesses were eager to pass the buck as to who, ultimately, was to blame for the militarization of U.S. police. While the Senate panel acknowledged that the programs had all done some good in aiding underfunded police departments by offering needed supplies, it was clear that the complete lack of oversight had created more problems than the programs in their current incarnations were worth.
The hearings were prompted by the events in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson. Protests ensued over the nature of the shooting and Ferguson and St. Louis County police responded with a show of force reminiscent of an invading army. Officers dressed in camouflage, body armor and gas masks, outfitted with assault weapons, and walking alongside armored vehicles was a sight many found disturbing, including Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.
McCaskill noted that military policy had shifted in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to win the “hearts and minds” of communities by acting more like a police force. That is, American military forces have tried “to appear less militaristic by their presence” as they keep peace in war-torn regions. “I therefore find it ironic,” she continued, “that at the same time we are embracing those tactics…we are in fact underlining a militarization of our domestic police departments.” She asked the witnesses to give an account as to how the situation had come to this.
In the instance of answers given by Alan F. Estevez, a deputy at the Pentagon, the blame was shifted onto state coordinators, a governor appointed position created to assess which agencies in a given state would be eligible for surplus military property through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. This coordinator was to review individual requests for property as well as statements for the property’s intended use. His point seemed to be that the Pentagon just filled the orders. “It’s not for the [defense] department really to judge” which state or local agency received what and why. It was, rather, up to the discretion of the coordinator. The Pentagon was also not responsible for training, even in the case of mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, which have a tendency to roll over and are heavy enough to tear up pavement. American police departments currently have more MRAPs than the National Guard.
When asked what use local police would have for mine-resistant vehicles, Estevez said need was assessed by the states. He did, however, point out that the Pentagon used “common sense” in not awarding those same states Apache helicopters or grenade launchers.
Brian Kamoie, representing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailed the impetus behind the Homeland Security Grant Program and the Urban Security Initiative and the safeguards in place making sure granted funds were not abused. The idea was to prepare local law enforcement to act as first responders, without federal assistance, in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The funds from these grants were given directly to the states under the stipulation that “at least 25 percent of the funds issued [were] used in the interests of terrorism prevention activities, including the purchase of equipment.” BearCats, the armored vehicles seen on the streets of Ferguson during the unrest, were purchased by local law enforcement with this money. Furthermore, he said, anything purchased with the funds was not to be used in riot suppression. This last point could be used as retroactive oversight, Kamoie implied, by enforcing the rule and demanding states return the grant money used in the purchase of military gear.
Kamoie, in response to a question from New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, also admitted that there was little to no collaboration between the Pentagon and FEMA in the disbursement of either grant money or equipment. This effectively meant that local law enforcement was able to receive equipment more or less free of charge through the 1033 program and then were able to turn around and ask the Department of Homeland Security for funds to purchase more military gear.
The final witness in the first session, Karol Mason, who works with the Department of Justice, was coyly compliant when questioned. When McCaskill inquired about the possibility of departments using grant money on body cameras, perhaps even as a required purchase before being allowed to buy anything else, Mason said that the states that had been given the money were certainly free to do so. She also admitted that there had been almost no discretion as to what the funds were used to buy.
As for the effectiveness of any of the programs in question, no matter their original intentions, one exchange stood out. As part of his justification for FEMA funding law enforcement procurement of military grade technology, Kamoie stated that it was an infrared camera on a state helicopter that helped capture the Boston Marathon bombing suspect. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn was not amused. Tsarnaev was apprehended after the shelter in place order had been lifted, and by a concerned citizen who called police after going out to “check his boat.”
The second session of the hearings featured testimony from law enforcement and legal experts, photojournalist Wiley Price, who works for the St. Louis American, and Hillary O. Shelton, who is representing the Washington Bureau of National Association of Colored People.