One month after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the Senate convened its first hearing on police militarization.
After watching a suburban street in St. Louis be transformed into a “war zone,” complete with camouflage, armored vehicles and guns with laser sight grips, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sought answers on how the federal government played a significant role in “enabling” police to obtain the fatigues, weapons and equipment that were used against protesters .
McCaskill, who called for the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel hearing during the August recess, focused much of the discussion on civil rights. The two-term senator asked law enforcement witnesses why the gear might be helpful for the safety of police, but from the outset said she was “confident that militarized policing tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly.”
Four Code Pink demonstrators staged their own brief protest in the front row of the Dirksen committee room. They waved pink signs that demanded police demilitarize, so people nation can peacefully protest “just like we do here,” one woman said. When the group’s founder, Medea Benjamin, tried to start a second round of protests a few minutes later, one of the three uniformed Capitol Police officers in the room stepped up to her chair and whispered that she needed to stop.
During the hearing Code Pink cheered some criticism of the federal equipment-sharing program, while Obama administration officials defended the initiative as key to helping police track down the culprits in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pressed witnesses from the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments on alleged abuse of civil liberties and pointed out a specific directive that instructs police not to use certain military gear for riot or protest suppression. He alleged police militarization had grown “out of control.”
“What purpose are bayonets given out for?” the libertarian senator and potential 2016 presidential contender asked rhetorically. “I can give you an answer: none.”
As he did in an opinion piece written for Time.com less than a week after Brown’s shooting, Paul insisted the federal government has incentivized militarization. Asked recently by CQ Roll Call whether Paul would try to amend pending legislation to address the problem, an aide to the Kentucky Republican pointed out the challenge of getting GOP amendments considered in the Senate.
Fellow Republicans on the panel, including Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the panel’s ranking member, asked how the federal government evaluated the needs of local and state police forces. Coburn wanted more examples of successful counter-terrorism activities and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., focused on the way militarization had grown from its roots in the war on drugs under President Ronald Reagan.
One statistic likely to be revisited came from the Defense Logistics Agency. Approximately 36 percent of the equipment the Pentagon gives away is new, according to the agency. McCaskill asked repeatedly for an explanation, and expressed concern about the expansion of the program. She promised to revisit the issue during future hearings, but said she doesn’t expect any legislation before the November elections.
“I think it’s a problem that has been created on a bipartisan basis, so I think it’s really important that we solve it on a bipartisan basis,” McCaskill told reporters.
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