Lawmakers on Tuesday harshly criticized federal programs that provide billions of dollars’ worth of military gear to state and local police but fail to track the equipment, require training or provide clear guidelines for its use.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said too much much military hardware is being passed on to local police with too little strategy or training for its use.
The senator requested the hearing after saying she’d been shocked by scenes of helmeted officers in gas masks and body armor aiming sniper rifles and lobbing tear gas at civilians protesting the fatal shooting last month of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
“Most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis being turned into a war zone,” McCaskill said.
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The hearing focused scrutiny on three federal programs run by the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Justice. The programs provide military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, directly or through grants.
The taxpayer-funded practice of equipping police with surplus Humvees, helicopters, ballistic vests and other military supplies dates to the 1990s, but it became increasingly well-funded and popular after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Pentagon program alone has provided more than $5 billion worth of equipment since 1990.
McCaskill complained that it’s impossible to tell how these taxpayer dollars are being spent because the agencies don’t track the purchases or keep adequate data.
“We can’t know, just from asking these agencies, how much military equipment — or anything else — local law enforcement agencies are buying,” she said.
Alan Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said it wasn’t up to the Pentagon to make sure that law enforcement agencies properly maintain the gear or train officers.
“We can’t manage local police departments,” he said.
McCaskill pressed Estevez to explain why 36 percent of the equipment the Department of Defense transfers to police departments is new or in “like-new” condition.
“What in the world are we doing buying things we’re not using?” she asked. “I guarantee you the stuff you’re giving away you’re continuing to buy. Why is that?”
Estevez said the Pentagon’s needs could change and “things we thought we would need we no longer need, or things we bought for the war … may no longer be needed.”
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, had a heated exchange with Estevez about why 12,000 bayonets were provided to police departments.
Estevez said he couldn’t answer.
McCaskill asked why police departments have more mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles than the National Guard does.
Nationwide, police departments have received 624 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles from the Pentagon since 2011. National Guard units have 60.
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