Why Congress Is Reluctant To Stop The Military Toys Flowing To Local Cops

08/18/2014 03:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

WASHINGTON -- The militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, is forcing members of Congress to explain their ongoing support for a Pentagon program that provides local law enforcement with weapons used in war zones -- and how, if at all, they plan to change it.

House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in June to block legislation by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) that would have stopped the program, which funnels surplus military weapons to police departments at no charge. The so-called '1033 program,' launched in 1997, has provided billions of dollars in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies around the country. Grayson's amendment failed 62 to 355, with Democrats opposing the legislation by a 3-to-1 margin.

The effects of the program have been on full display in Ferguson, where police have responded to mostly peaceful protests over the Aug. 9 murder of Michael Brown with a stunning display of force involving armored vehicles, tear gas, assault rifles and smoke bombs. The result is a nightly scene that looks more like an international war zone than a St. Louis suburb.

The consequences of a militarized police force are varied, as Radley Balko writes in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. A person's home is no longer a place of sanctuary, the Fourth Amendment is compromised, and local police are conditioned to see the citizens in their own communities as the enemy. Notably, in Ferguson, the protests were far less contentious on Thursday night, when the police weren't out in riot gear.

Yet while lawmakers have decried the excessive police response in Ferguson, a number of members told The Huffington Post they don’t expect Congress to do much to rein in the Pentagon program. That's not so much because of intense lobbying from the defense industry, they said, but more because local police forces say they benefit from the free gear.

“I can't speak for others, but my guess is that most people think police don't get enough funding/support at the local level,” said one House Democrat who voted against Grayson’s amendment. “So if the Feds want to give cops stuff for free, go for it.”

“The argument made is that everyone wants their community to ‘be prepared’ with the best equipment, in the event they need it,” said another House Democrat, who also voted against the amendment. “Hard to say 'no' to your local police chief when they are explaining to you how this equipment could help and in what type of situation.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who spoke at a community gathering in Ferguson last week and urged faith leaders to help end the violence, said he still supports military weapons being transferred to police departments, though there may need to be more oversight of the program.

"We need to re-evaluate distributing this kind of war equipment to municipalities," Cleaver said. "And if we are going to do it, we must at least have other requirements, including something as simple as adequate training."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a leading voice for progressives, says it’s time to reassess the way the program is carried out, not end it altogether.

“The Leader supports examining the overall federal effort of giving military-type equipment to local police departments,” said a Pelosi spokeswoman. “Cutting off all funding -- like the Grayson amendment -- is a blunt instrument, but oversight and appropriate scale of funding for such programs need to be examined.”

But Grayson's legislation wouldn't have cut off all funding for the Pentagon program -- instead, it would have banned funding for a specific set of heavy-duty gear, including grenade launchers, toxicological agents and drones, all of which may legally be transferred to police departments under current law.

Thirty-five members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus voted against Grayson's amendment, though some, like Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), have criticized police militarization in the wake of the events in Ferguson.

"Our nation has a rich history of peaceful protests to advance civil and human rights,” said Carson, who is a former law enforcement officer. “These voices are too valuable to be silenced by violence and the use of unnecessary and excessive force.”

Carson spokeswoman Jessica Gail said the congressman doesn’t oppose the Pentagon program outright, since “some of the equipment transferred from the DOD has a legitimate law enforcement purpose.” But she said Carson thinks the program deserves “additional scrutiny” to make sure that police officers are using military equipment appropriately.

The sizable opposition from progressives to what appears to be a progressive amendment had a number of root causes, one plugged-in aide to a caucus member told HuffPost. Much of it can be overcome with organizing. According to the aide, the debate and vote came late at night and the caucus never sent out a note to members advising them how to vote. And no outside groups working on the issue lobbied members of Congress.

"We do hundreds of these things on appropriations bills and, sadly, staff and Members often times aren’t on top of things," the aide said. "As a staffer you have to make vote recommendations on the fly, often with very little information. When there aren’t outside groups lobbying, it’s even harder."

Once those organizing hurdles are overcome, the aide predicted, support will increase among natural allies. But the politics will still be difficult, as the defense industry and local police can serve as extremely effective lobbyists. "Outside of the good work [Georgia Rep.] Hank Johnson and FCNL have been doing, this issue hasn’t gotten a lot of play up on the Hill," the aide added. The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is a Quaker group that lobbies against militarization and has worked with Johnson, who plans to introduce a bill in the House to address the issue.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) issued a statement on Friday vowing to review the program, but stopped short of calling for any actual reforms.

"Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," Levin said. "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."

Although the effects of the 1033 program have been documented for years, many lawmakers don’t know much about it. Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a longtime critic of bloated defense budgets, told HuffPost he was "not familiar" with it, and a progressive House aide said the lack of lobbying around the program made it easier for lawmakers to defer to their local police.

Members of Congress have justified the program by saying police departments need to be prepared to fight terrorism. “There could be a terrorist threat with people with high-cartridge ammunition and weaponry, where [police] might need to respond with some type of, something like that, although the national guard would be called out,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said Friday on MSNBC.

But Cohen was one of three lawmakers who wrote to House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) last week urging him to hold a hearing to examine how much local law enforcement really needs access to military gear.

Wartime weapons should not be used “against our own citizens when there is civil unrest and civil protest,” Cohen said. “Even if it got to the point where it did where they are breaking some glass, that's no reason to come with the amount of force and appearance that was brought by the police in Ferguson.”

A Goodlatte spokeswoman said the congressman supports the investigation into Michael Brown’s death, but wouldn’t comment on the Pentagon program.

A petition on the White House website calling for an end to the program had nearly 500 signatures as of Monday afternoon. If the petition collects 100,000 signatures by Sept. 13, the White House will issue a response.

David McCabe contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that Rep. Alan Grayson didn't call on his colleagues to back his amendment. He sent them a Dear Colleague letter asking for their support.

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