Why Are Police Being Armed to the Teeth? Senators Ask

Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri
Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee hearing on July 17, 2014. Gary Cameron/Reuters

"What purpose are bayonets being given out [to local police] for?"

The question was posed by Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, during a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing Tuesday to address the militarization of local police forces in the wake of the hyper-militarized response to protests over the killing by police of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, last month.

It was just one of many pointed questions that put the hearing's first three witnesses, who oversee federal programs that provide military equipment and funding for such equipment to local law enforcement, on the defensive.

Alan F. Estevez, who oversees the Department of Defense's transfer of unneeded military equipment to local police, struggled to answer Paul's question, though the program he helps administer has transferred nearly 12,000 bayonets to local police since 2006.

"I can't answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for..." he said before Paul cut him off.

"I can give you an answer: none," the senator said. "I can't imagine any use for a bayonet in an urban setting.... The militarization of police is something that has gotten so far out of control."

The protests in Ferguson brought shocking images of unarmed, peaceful protesters being confronted by police in armored vehicles, wearing military fatigues and aiming their military assault rifles on people they are supposed to protect. Tuesday's hearing, which Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, promised won't be the last, was an attempt by Congress to get to the bottom of why a St. Louis suburb turned so quickly into a war zone. Paired with a White House investigation into federal programs that put military-grade equipment into the hands of local police forces, the committee hearing is part of the most comprehensive review in years of the militarization of local police and the federal government's role in making that happen.

Initially meant to help law enforcement agencies carry out the "war on drugs" launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the Department of Defense's 1033 program has since the early 1990s transferred unused and unwanted military equipment, such as mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, and M16 automatic rifles, to local police departments. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the demand for military equipment from local police increased, notionally to fight terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department provide grant money for local police departments to buy military-grade equipment, with little oversight of or training in the weapons sold.

According to Estevez's testimony, local police forces now possess 460,000 pieces of controlled military equipment through the 1033 program alone, including 92,442 small arms (representing 4 percent of items in law enforcement agencies' possession), 44,275 night vision devices (1.9 percent of items), 5,235 high-mobility, multi-purpose wheeled vehicles, or HMMWVs (0.2 percent of items), 617 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (0.03 percent of items), and 616 aircraft (0.03 percent of items).

Representatives from three federal departments—Defense, Homeland Security and Justice—received a grilling from senators on both sides of the aisle Tuesday. The three witnesses used their opening statements to suggest the positive effects of the war matériel transfer and grant programs.

Estevez, for example, noted that military equipment received through the 1033 program was used in rescue efforts after Hurricane Sandy that hit the length of the East Coast in 2012. "During the height of Superstorm Sandy, Jersey Shore police drove two cargo trucks and three HMMWVs through water too deep for commercial vehicles to save 64 people," he said.

The witness from the Department of Homeland Security, Brian Kamoie, a grant administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted that a grant-funded "forward-looking infrared camera on a Massachusetts State Police helicopter enabled the apprehension of [accused Boston Marathon bomber] Dzhokhar Tsarnaev" in 2013. That example drew a sharp response from Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who reminded Kamoie that, contrary to his testimony, Tsarnaev was apprehended after a man went outside to check on his boat, saw the bomber huddled inside it and called the police.

McCaskill was incensed by the fact that 36 percent of the equipment provided to local forces through the 1033 program is seldom used. "What in the world are we doing buying things that we're not using?" she asked. "I guarantee you the stuff you're giving away you're continuing to buy." Estevez, the principal deputy under the secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, tried to explain that adjustments in federal budgets and the waging of wars overseas often results in ordering military equipment that was not needed.

"It's going to drive me crazy" to discover that the Defense Department gave away equipment last year and then bought the same stuff again this year, McCaskill said. "So just be ready," she told Estevez.

A number of Republican senators echoed McCaskill's exasperation at the billions of dollars being spent on unwanted military equipment that is then passed off to police departments. There was also widespread disbelief that small police departments in small towns really needed heavy-duty military weaponry and equipment.

"How did we ever get to the point where we think states need MRAPs?" Coburn asked Estevez, who was visibly uncomfortable at being grilled so closely. "This is obviously one of the areas that we're going to look at, Senator," Estevez replied.

McCaskill had done her research. She named a tiny sheriff's department in Oklahoma that has one full-time sworn officer and two MRAPs, she told Estevez. In a small town in Michigan, she said, "you gave them 13 military assault weapons since 2011. They have one full-time sworn officer. So one officer now has 13 military-grade assault weapons.

"How in the world can anyone say that this program has one lick of oversight if those two things are in existence?" McCaskill asked.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, used her questions to get at what many believe is the underlying problem in Ferguson: a police force that abuses civil rights and liberties of the community. After a white police officer shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Justice Department opened an investigation not only into the Brown case but also into the local department's reportedly routine abuse of black residents.

Baldwin's questions revealed that the equipment transfers and the grants to pay for them generally don't take into account whether the local police force being given the military kit is under investigation for civil rights abuses or whether there is a history of civil rights abuses in that community. (The witness from the Justice Department said there is some coordination between the grant distributors and the department's Civil Rights Division.)

To some of the witnesses before the committee, however, it is not simply that military hardware shouldn't fall into the hands of troubled police forces but that the possession of military equipment changes the attitudes and practices of the police toward their community. According to Peter Kraska, a justice studies professor at Eastern Kentucky University and a witness on the hearing's second panel, possession and use of military equipment by police undermine efforts to forge trust between police and the community.

"Military gear and garb changes and reinforces a war-fighting mentality among civilian police, where marginalized populations become the enemy and the police perceive of themselves as a thin blue line between order and chaos that can only be controlled through military-modeled power," said Kraska. "When you hand these departments this level of weaponry and these goods, it changes their mind-set."

He gave an example: "Most of these departments have 25, 30, 50 officers. Fifteen of them serve on the SWAT team. Now they have an MRAP...a $325,000 armored personnel carrier paid for by Homeland Security. What do they say to themselves? Here's an example: 'We have racial tensions at the basketball game. We're going to bring the MRAP to the basketball game on Friday night.' That's a quote."

McCaskill nodded along to Kraska's testimony. To reinforce the point that police militarization has seeped into American culture, the senator pulled up a list of children's toys she had found on Amazon.com when she searched for "police officer toys." Among the first results were a toy military helmet and a hand grenade.

"Now these are what parents are buying for their children who say they want to grow up and be police officers," she said.