Congress Isn't Ending the Pentagon-to-Police Weapons Program Anytime Soon

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters Wednesday. A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters Wednesday. Jeff Roberson/AP

High-profile lawmakers are criticizing a federal program that puts military equipment in the hands of local law enforcement, a reaction to the chaos and police crackdown in Ferguson, Mo.

But that doesn't mean Congress is going to do anything about it.

Rep. John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, and two of his Democratic colleagues are asking committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte to convene hearings on the militarization of police forces. And Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia said Thursday he will introduce a bill that would limit the kinds of military equipment local police forces can acquire.

Libertarian-leaning Republicans are joining the chorus as well. Republican Sen. Rand Paulpenned a piece for Time protesting the "cartoonish imbalance between the equipment some police departments possess and the constituents they serve," and Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan spoke out against police militarization via Twitter as well.

The response from congressional Republican leadership, however, has been measured or nonexistent, suggesting the issue is unlikely to make the agenda when Congress returns from recess in September. And even if it does, the program that connects police forces to military equipment has well-placed defenders in Congess.

At issue is the "1033 program," a Defense Department program that transfers excess military equipment to law-enforcement agencies through the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.

"This program protects taxpayers, and it protects our nation's law enforcement men and women as they do a dangerous job," said John Noonan, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the program.

"In certain circumstances, the Defense Department transfers surplus equipment to law enforcement—when DHS among other agencies determines the equipment is suitable to law enforcement activities. The vast majority of what is actually transferred tends to be soft. It is items like radios and uniforms and office supplies."

Johnson's measure would limit the types of equipment the program could transfer to police forces, as well as require states to certify they could account for all equipment.

"Before another small town's police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to reign in [sic] the Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America," Johnson wrote in a "dear colleague" letter Thursday.

A change to the program would come via a tweak to the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision allowing the Defense Department to transfer the equipment to local police forces. In 2013 the agency transferred about $450 million worth of equipment to law-enforcement agencies, according to LESO's website.

Yet according to a Capitol Hill source with knowledge of the program, just 5 percent of the equipment transfers consist of weapons while tactical vehicles made up only 0.35 percent of the transfers.

The source also played down the program's responsibility for the up-armored, riot-gear-clad police in Ferguson. In November, DOD provided two non-armored Humvees, a cargo trailer, and a generator to the Ferguson Police Department, according the source.

St. Louis County police, however, received twelve 5.56 millimeter rifles and six .45-caliber pistols from the Defense Department, according to USA Today.

The images of heavily armored and weaponized police putting down protesters in Ferguson shared by news outlets and social media have stirred up a widespread critical response, and Attorney General Eric Holder weighed in Thursday.

"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message. At my direction, department officials have conveyed these concerns to local authorities," Holder said in a statement.

Earlier in the week, Conyers, along with Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, who represents the Ferguson area, and Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, wrote a letter to Holder asking that the Justice Department investigate the potential civil-rights violations of the Brown shooting and surrounding events.

House Speaker John Boehner raised similar concerns in a statement, saying, "I strongly support a full and thorough investigation of the events surrounding [Brown's] death, and subsequent actions, including the detention of journalists covering this heartbreaking situation."

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