By Megan R. Wilson - 08/28/14 06:00 AM EDT
Police associations are beginning a major lobbying push to protect their access to the military equipment that was used against demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo.
Law enforcement groups argue a Pentagon program that provides surplus military gear helps protect the public, and they are gearing up for a fight with lawmakers and the Obama administration over whether it should be continued.
The Fraternal Order and other groups told The Hill that they are already meeting with lawmakers’ offices in an attempt to get a jump on the issue before Congress returns from the August recess.
Congress is facing a time crunch in September, with only a handful of legislative days on the calendar before members head back to their states and districts to campaign for reelection.
Police groups fear a stopgap bill to fund the government, which Congress must pass in September to avoid a government shutdown, could be used to stop the transfer of military gear.
Lawmakers in both parties have expressed support for curbing or defunding the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which provides police with weapons and equipment, such as rifles, grenade launchers, night-vision goggles and armored vehicles, such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for free. The Pentagon notes that only 5 percent of all equipment given to departments through the program are weapons.
Since the program began in the 1990s, the Defense Department has given $5.1 billion worth of the excess military gear to local law enforcement agencies, leading to what critics say is a “militarization” of local law enforcement.
Additionally, there are two other programs, run by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, that arm police with sophisticated equipment.
Pasco said his group is working to counter what he calls “misinformation.”
“It looks like the main thrust of our effort is going to be educational because there's an awful lot of misunderstanding and an awful lot of misinformation about this equipment as to its purposes and its application in civilian law enforcement,” Pasco said.
He said armored vehicles and Kevlar helmets protect officers and citizens in defensive situations such as mass shootings.
"They talk about these Humvees as if they're these weapons of mass destruction," he said.
The Pentagon’s surplus program is coming under threat from both Congress and the Obama administration.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, vowed earlier this month that appropriators would “review the program” before passing the Defense Department’s budget for fiscal 2015.
Other Democrats, including Reps. Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Alan Grayson (Fla.), have proposed measures to stop the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement.
And on the right, Tea Party groups and libertarian-leaning lawmakers, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) are warning that the “militarization” of police threatens civil liberties.
Once Congress reconvenes, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) plans to hold a hearing in order to “get all the facts … and all the perspectives” on the surplus program, she said Tuesday on MSNBC.
She added that Congress should “really think about whether or not we should be giving any federal funding to any local police jurisdiction,” unless officers agree to outfit their officers and patrol cars with cameras.
Police groups are pushing back on that proposal.
“If you start penalizing police departments because they're not utilizing the equipment you feel they ought to be using, then you're really penalizing the citizens that department is charged with protecting,” Pasco said. “Since the job of an elected official is to provide for public safety, I'm sure that's not what Sen. McCaskill meant.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has already met with McCaskill’s staff, and other law enforcement groups say they too are meeting with congressional aides about the response to Ferguson.
“Our general feeling would be that this isn't the time right now — with emotions running so high because of the situation in Missouri — to change policy via the [government funding bill],” said Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
Police groups also have to contend with the executive branch, as President Obama has ordered a review of the federal programs that arm police. The Pentagon has already said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel could pull the plug on the 1033 program without Congress.
The issue of police militarization was thrust into the headlines after protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
The police response to the protests evoked images of a war zone, as police officers took to the streets in camouflage and sophisticated combat gear.
Pasco said he worries that Congress might try to enact a “shortsighted” response to the Ferguson turmoil “because they don't have a lot of time” to work through it.
“Everybody will grab on to it,” he said of lawmakers.
This post was updated on Aug. 29.