Police lobby fights to keep gear

 

 

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.

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“We are the most vigorous law enforcement advocacy group, and we intend to be at our most vigorous on this issue,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in the country.

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 LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE (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 GraysonAlan Mark GraysonFlorida's Darren Soto fends off Dem challenge from Alan Grayson Live results: Arizona and Florida hold primaries The Hill's Morning Report: Frustration mounts as Republicans blow up tax message MORE (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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashLawmakers blast Trump as Israel bars door to Tlaib and Omar House Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Sanford headed to New Hampshire amid talk of challenge to Trump MORE (R-Mich.) are warning that the “militarization” of police threatens civil liberties.

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Once Congress reconvenes, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillEx-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Ocasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren't representative of Midwest Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (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 HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip Esper given horse in Mongolia as US looks for new inroads against China MORE 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.