Republicans and Democrats in Congress have finally found something they agree on – attacking a Pentagon program that is approved yearly by lawmakers as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Senators took turns ripping apart the Defense Department's 1033 program at a hearing on Tuesday and raised questions about whether local police across America should have access to the same equipment used on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 1033 program is in the spotlight because of the so-called militarization of police in Ferguson, Missouri, after protests about the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
Since Congress first approved the 1033 program in 1990, local police have received more than $5.1 billion in military-grade property – from surplus desks to Mine Resistant Ambush P (MRAPS), M-16s, and Kevlar body armor. In 2013 alone, more than $449 million in military equipment was transferred; the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and FEMA paid for it through grants appropriated by Congress.
Although DOD officials say Ferguson police did not use any of its military-grade tactical equipment (which is still under review in a separate federal investigation), the war zone-like images that came out of Ferguson sparked new concerns.
"There is no role for the federal government in state and local police forces in our country," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said Tuesday. The longtime deficit hawk pointed out that a tiny police department in his home state had received two MRAPs from the Pentagon though it only has one full time police officer.
Alan Estevez, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, pointed out that "we do this because we're asked to do this," implying that it was Congress who approved the 1033 program in the first place.
A document obtained by The Fiscal Times from the office of Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill who ran the hearing revealed similar details. A small Pennsylvania County police department, for example, also received an MRAP from the Pentagon, despite having just five police officers.
The problem, according to lawmakers, is that some of these small-town police officers may not be trained to handle the military equipment. "This is crazy, out of control," Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said.
Estevez responded, "There is a lot of opportunity for improvement regarding the discussion on training."
He and other officials noted that military equipment has played a "crucial role" in saving lives and disaster response. Estevez said N.J. police officers, for example, used Humvees to rescue Hurricane Sandy victims who were in water too high for police vehicles to reach; he also said military equipment was used after the Boston bombings to capture Dzhokhar Anzorovich "Jahar" Tsarnaev.
Estevez said his department "does not push equipment on law enforcement departments," as they have to request it. Still, nearly all of the officials agreed that oversight of the 1033 program as well as the grants needs to be improved.
That wasn't enough for some lawmakers. "I am confident that militarizing police tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly," McCaskill said.
Separately, McCaskill blasted the DOD for distributing equipment that in many cases is new or barely used. "Why are we buying new things at the DOD just to give it away?" she asked. "Almost 40 percent of what you are giving away has never been used by the military…"
DOD officials said they only give away things the military doesn't use. "As our budget changes, things that we thought we would need, we no longer need," Estevez said. He added that coordination can be improved – and said there is no existing process to follow up on how equipment is used.
— By Brianna Ehley, The Fiscal Times