As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri continue, the U.S. Congress recently blocked a vote on a bipartisan bill that would have restricted the transfer of military-grade weapons and vehicles to local police.
The August killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked outrage not only in Missouri, but across the country. Even among many who believed Officer Wilson’s actions were justified, the presence of a militarized police force may have helped turn public opinion against the police.
Introduced during the initial furor in September, a bipartisan bill, titled the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act,” sought to limit the transfer of military weapons to local police through the Pentagon’s 1033 program. The bill had 45 cosponsors, including Republican U.S. Reps. Justin Amash and Tom McClintock. Although the House is in its so-called lame duck session, where political repercussions are at their lowest, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, blocked a vote.
In introducing his bill, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said:
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. . . . Before another small town’s police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho), a cosponsor of the bill, also said at the time:
“The Pentagon’s surplus property program blurs that line [between civil and military] by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns. Our bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused.”
An NPR study of the 1033 program showed that since 2006, nearly 80,000 assault rifles were transferred to local police as well as over 200 grenade launchers, 50 airplanes, and over 400 helicopters.
In a recent interview, Johnson talked about the need to reform the program that grants military weapons and vehicles to local police:
“So, once they acquire it, then [police] are under an obligation to use it within one year from the date of acquisition. . . . They can go out and acquire drones, helicopters, high caliber weapons, long range acoustic devices, these explosive flash bang grenades which many local law enforcement agencies use when executing no knock search warrants for drugs. And so, they acquire this equipment and then they have to use it.”
When Congress rejected a previous de-militarization bill earlier in 2014, one congressman said “to outright ban the usage of that equipment would devastate local law enforcement agencies across the nation,” because it was ridiculous “to think the equipment that’s utilized by law enforcement is utilized for any reason other than public safety.”
However, as one historian wrote for the Daily Caller (noting the military weapons and vehicles), the police, today as in the 1960s, did not protect businesses from rioters and looters after the grand jury issued its verdict.
“The eyes of the police, covered by riot masks, look on indifferently to the fates of those victimized,” he wrote.
A new Congress will be inaugurated in January with a larger Republican majority. The GOP has a history of questioning militarizing tactics, but it is difficult to predict whether the new Congress will take up de-militarization as an issue once Ferguson eventually fades from headlines.