A United States Senate committee held a hearing in the aftermath of what happened with militarized policing in Ferguson, Missouri, in order to examine federal grant programs for state and local law enforcement. At the hearing, two of the heads of three major grant programs admitted they do not examine whether a law enforcement organization is under investigation for depriving citizens of their constitutional rights before awarding grants, which may include military-grade equipment.
The Pentagon has a 1033 program, which gives away surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement for free. The Homeland Security Department has a “homeland security preparedness” grant program that is run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And the Justice Department has a grant program called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, which makes the acquisition of certain equipment possible for law enforcement.
Yet, up until what happened in Ferguson, the individuals or departments with a level of responsibility for these programs—Alan Estevez, principal deputy under secretary of defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Brian Kamoie, assistant administrator for grant programs at FEMA and Karol Mason, assistant attorney at the Office of Justice Programs—had not ever met with each other.
Estevez, Kamoie and Mason were each witnesses at the hearing and Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin asked them, “What is the nature of the consultation between the Department of Defense and Department of Justice on this program and is there a discussion of whether a law enforcement agency is under investigation for the possible deprivation of constitutional rights?”
Initially, Estevez tried to deflect the question by saying that “consultation with the Justice Department” was one area, where the Pentagon needed to a better job. Baldwin repeated the question and Estevez said no. The Pentagon doesn’t consider whether a law enforcement organization is under investigation before awarding grants.
Baldwin asked if there was any reason why this could not be considered in the future. Estevez replied, “Of course it could be,” as if all Congress had to do was ask and the Pentagon would gladly oblige.
Kanoie answered, “No, we do not take into account whether a law enforcement organization is under investigation for potential deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties.”
Mason said the Office of Justice Programs has a Civil Rights Office that “makes sure that all of the grant programs for the department comply with civil rights laws” and also stated that this office coordinates with the Programs Office when they’re doing investigations.
“Any policy to track usage data for any kind of equipment that is considered military-grade?” Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill asked. Estevez said the Pentagon program did not. Kanoie said the DHS program did not. Mason suggested some kind of “activity reports” are available for assessing use of equipment.
McCaskill demanded the Justice Department provide usage data on camouflage uniforms, helmets, weapons—”all the things used in Ferguson.” Later, she indicated she did not think the Justice Department had any idea how their equipment provided to law enforcement was being used so she was possibly confident Mason was bluffing and made the demand to not let her get away with it.
Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul said, “In FEMA’s authorized equipment list, there’s actually written descriptions for how equipment should be used and says it’s specifically not to be used for riot suppression.”
Kanoie confirmed that was accurate. Categories of personnel protective equipment, such as helmets, ear and eye protection, ballistics—they are not to be used for “riot suppression.” And, when Paul asked what he would be doing about it, Kanoie said he would follow the Justice Department’s lead as they review what happened with the police and work with the state of Missouri to figure out what grant-funded equipment was used then go from there.
Paul cited an NPR report that showed 12,000 bayonets have been provided to law enforcement by the Pentagon.
“What purpose are bayonets being given out for?” Paul asked.
“I can’t answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for,” Estevez replied. ”
“I can give you an answer. None,” Paul interjected. So, what is President Barack Obama’s position on whether police should have 12,000 bayonets?
Estevez would not provide anything concrete about whether Obama will be approving the continued handing out of bayonets to local police forces.
In the back-and-forth, Estevez claimed that it is the states that decide what they need. But Paul countered that it was his understanding that he has the ability in his position to decide what equipment is given out and not given out.
McCaskill highlighted data from the Pentagon that indicates in the last three years 624 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles or MRAPs have been provided to state and local law enforcement “seemingly without regard to need or size of the agency.”
“At least 13 law enforcement agencies with fewer than 10 full-time officers received an MRAP in the last three years,” McCaskill stated. The number of MRAPs in the possession of police departments in the US is now higher than the number in the possession of the National Guard.
In Texas, local law enforcement have 73 MRAPs. The National Guard has six. Florida has 45 MRAPs. The National Guard has zero.
McCaskill said she questions “whether police need it more than the nation’s National Guard.”
She was also concerned that, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, 36% of the equipment given to law enforcement is “brand new.”
Paul was one of the few senators to connect what was witnessed in Ferguson to the War on Drugs. He expressed concern about SWAT teams engaged in no-knock raids and, in particular, a raid in Georgia where a baby was critically injured when he was hit by a flash bang grenade that landed in his crib.
Both Paul and McCaskill spoke rather openly about the risk police militarization posed to dissent. Paul declared, “Confronting protesters with armored personnel carriers is thoroughly un-American.”
“Militarized policing tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. These lawful peaceful protesters on that Wednesday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri, did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants,” McCaskill stated when the hearing began.
Despite the valuable questions and statements made by senators during the committee hearing, it is worth making one quick note that the lack of accountability would not have been so starkly profound if Congress had shown any level of concern or interest in how this equipment was used by police prior to what the world witnessed in Ferguson.
For more on police militarization, here’s a video produced by Brave New Films, which includes some salient examples of how this has all become out of control.