By Mike Lillis
A pair of prominent Missouri Democrats urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Thursday to rein in a federal program arming local police with surplus military equipment.
Reps. Lacy Clay and Emanuel Cleaver, both members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said they've asked Hagel to review the Pentagon's 1033 program, citing "urgent concerns about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies" in the wake of this month's violent, racially tinged protests in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9.
"The discussion allowed us to share our objections, and those of our constituents, who are seeking a vigorous review of the existing 1033 program and some important changes to ensure public safety and the preservation of fundamental constitutional rights," they added. "That includes the right to assemble and peacefully protest without the unacceptable threat of an overbearing police response which targets law-abiding citizens with military weapons and technology."
Clay represents Ferguson; Cleaver, the former head of the CBC, is the only other House Democrat in the state.
The pair described the meeting as "expansive and very encouraging."
The 1033 program was thrust into the spotlight this month when protesters, furious over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, faced off with local police in the streets of Ferguson, a largely black suburb of St. Louis. Images of officers confronting protesters with assault rifles, gas masks and military vehicles went viral on the internet, leading top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to question the wisdom of transferring military-grade gear to local authorities.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has hammered the program, accusing Washington of encouraging "the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies."
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have both suggested they plan to take a closer look at the program in response to the Ferguson saga.
And Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) announced Thursday that, as head of the Homeland Security Committee's subpanel on finances, she'll be holding a hearing on the Pentagon's 1033 program next month.
"This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution," McCaskill said last week.
The Pentagon has defended the surplus transfer program, saying it's helped local authorities who might otherwise be overwhelmed by drug criminals.
"I want to make sure that it’s clear that this isn’t some program run amok here, or that there isn’t proper accountability,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday. “There is. And it’s well thought-out.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), another CBC member, is drafting legislation to curtail the 1033 program by barring the transfer of certain gear from the Pentagon to local law enforcers. He plans to introduce the proposal when Congress returns to Washington next month.
The bill is almost certain to win quick support from Clay and Cleaver.
"If there is any good that can come out of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, our hope is that this effort will spur a national discussion about how to achieve a fundamental shift in local law enforcement, away from military-style responses, and towards a more community-based policy," the two Democrats said.