Push to demilitarize cops in lame duck

Getty Images

A House Democrat is pushing for Congress to crack down on police militarization when lawmakers return to Washington after the elections.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) says the Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcers – dubbed the 1033 program – is out of control and needs reining in.

ADVERTISEMENT
The obscure program generated countless headlines in August after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in a St. Louis suburb. The shooting sparked violent protests and a consequent police crackdown featuring riot gear, assault weapons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Video footage of the clash went viral on the Internet and prompted President Obama to order a multi-agency review. Almost three months later, the protests against both the shooting and the police response are ongoing in Ferguson, Mo.

While Johnson has already introduced legislation with Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) to scale back the 1033 program, this week he took a second tack: He's urging the heads of the Armed Services committees to adopt a moratorium on the transfer of certain equipment under the 1033 program until the Obama administration finalizes its examination.

"[T]he recent tragedy in Ferguson … has highlighted in grim detail what can happen when law enforcement becomes militarized," Johnson wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to the lawmakers. "Our neighborhoods need to be protected, but Americans oppose blurring the line between police and military personnel."

The letter comes as the Armed Services leaders — Sens. Carl LevinCarl LevinAs other regulators move past implementing Dodd-Frank, the SEC falls further behind Will partisan politics infect the Supreme Court? Fight for taxpayers draws fire MORE (D-Mich.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Reps. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) — are preparing to hash out a compromise on a 2015 defense authorization bill. 

With little legislative activity expected in the lame duck, critics of the 1033 program see the defense bill as their best shot at scaling back the program.

Aside from the moratorium on certain 1033 equipment transfers, Johnson is also calling for the elimination of a section of the House version of the bill, passed earlier in the year, that would expand equipment transfers to border security personnel.

Johnson is hardly the only lawmaker with the 1033 program on the radar.

In September, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillThe Republicans' hypocrisy on minimum wage Watchdog faults Energy Department over whistleblower retaliation Wagner passes on NRCC bid, backs Stivers MORE (D-Mo.), head of the Homeland Security Committee's subpanel on finances, staged a hearing to examine the turmoil in Ferguson, casting a wary eye on the militarized police response.

Levin, for his part, has vowed to review the program "to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.” His office did not respond Friday to a request for comment. 

Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Friday that the program can be a wonderful taxpayer and community benefit — when it's used "with appropriate safeguards, oversight and training in place, and with the utmost concern and care for the community."

"When the equipment is used without the proper consideration for the community, it can cause even more problems," Grassley said in an email. "It's an important issue that Congress could consider either in the lame duck session as part of the defense reauthorization or in the new Congress."

McKeon, in September, had scheduled a subcommittee hearing to examine the 1033 program more broadly. That meeting of the Armed Services Oversight and Investigations subpanel was postponed after Congress condensed its September calendar. But the California Republican has promised to reschedule in the lame duck.

"While I have not set the committee's calendar for November and December, I will ensure that the subcommittee schedules the hearing during this timeframe," McKeon wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Johnson and Smith.

McKeon's office declined to comment for this story, but a Smith spokesman said Friday that the Democrats are confident the examination is forthcoming.

"It's still going to happen," said Michael Amato. "They've committed to a hearing."

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee haven't had as much luck. Since the Ferguson riots, they've urged Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to stage a hearing examining the use of excessive force by local law enforcement.  

Goodlatte has declined, saying he first wants to see the Obama administration's review — a position he still holds, his office said Friday.

That review could be a long time coming.

Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said Friday that the department is working on its examination — and has already sent at least some recommendations to the White House. But because other agencies — including the Justice and Homeland Security departments – are also involved, the report will likely not emerge until the various pieces have all been submitted.

Even then, he warned, the package will need to be compiled and vetted.

"It depends on how long the White House wants to review it," Wright said.