Congress on Tuesday opens its first hearing into the federal government’s financing of military-style weaponry for local police departments, a response to last month’s violent clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri.
The congressional inquiry, along with a White House review, amounts to the most significant reconsideration of America’s local counterterrorism strategy since the Sept. 11 attacks.
For more than a decade, Washington has helped arm and fortify America’s cities to prepare for such an attack. But the money and equipment - including silencers, armored cars, grenade launchers and night-vision goggles - flowed for years with few strings attached. Internal audits have raised questions about the oversight and management of those grants and giveaways.
Washington showed little interest in revisiting the issue until recently, when Missouri police officers wearing body armor fired tear gas and pointed assault rifles at people protesting the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white police officer. Local authorities and the Justice Department are investigating the shooting.
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“This review by Congress is long overdue,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in prepared remarks.
President Barack Obama has also ordered a review of Pentagon surplus programs, and Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department grants that provide equipment to police.
Officials from all three departments were scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate committee. Representatives of police and civil rights groups were also due to testify.
One witness, Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a research group in Washington, has said the law enforcement response in Ferguson could be a sign that authorities need more training. The federal grant and surplus programs typically do not require training on the gear they provide.
Congress could change the rules for providing equipment to local authorities. It is not clear, however, whether the political will exists to do so. Police grants have been extraordinarily popular in Congress. As they expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, the only major controversy was whether departments were receiving their fair shares of equipment.