Government & Politics

Missouri’s McCaskill seeks to overhaul programs that provide military gear to police

A 54,000-pound transporter, a hulking military-styled tactical vehicle known as the MRAP Caiman, is the sort of military leftover that’s ended up in the hands of local police.
A 54,000-pound transporter, a hulking military-styled tactical vehicle known as the MRAP Caiman, is the sort of military leftover that’s ended up in the hands of local police. AP

Police departments would no longer be able to obtain the heavy armored vehicles used by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from roadside bombs if a bill by Sen. Claire McCaskill becomes law.

The bill introduced by the Missouri Democrat on Thursday would remove Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, commonly known as MRAPs, from list of military equipment available to cops.

Local police have received 624 MRAPs from the Pentagon since 2011. National Guard units, in contrast, have just 60.

“MRAPs are not designed for policing,” McCaskill said in a press call with Missouri reporters on Thursday. “They’re not flexible or nimble enough to provide the kind of protection that police officers need in some circumstances.”

The bill also would bar small police departments — those with fewer than 10 sworn officers — from purchasing more than one military tactical vehicle. Departments with fewer than 35 officers would not able able to obtain federal funding for SWAT equipment unless they teamed up with other agencies to form regional SWAT teams.

Hotlines would be set up to receive reports from the public on the misuse of funds and equipment, and police departments would have to publish their requests for grant funding for certain equipment, such as tactical vehicles, camouflage, flash bang grenades and weapons over a certain caliber.

Money would be set aside to fund body cameras, dashboard cameras, gun cameras, and to cover the costs of maintenance and storage of footage. And local law enforcement agencies would have to meet additional requirements for training and data collection in order to qualify for federal grants and equipment.

An identical bill is being offered in the House by U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, a St. Louis Democrat.

“Our bill directly addresses the excessive militarization of local police, which I witnessed first-hand in Ferguson,” Clay said in a statement.

McCaskill was prompted to draft the legislation after protests broke out in Ferguson, Mo., last year, over the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer. McCaskill chaired a Senate hearing to examine the militarized police response to the protests. At the time, the senator said she was deeply disturbed by the sight of helmeted officers in body armor aiming sniper rifles at civilians and patrolling the streets of Ferguson atop huge armored vehicles.

McCaskill said she came away from the hearing convinced that federal programs that provide surplus military gear to police departments across the U.S. lack oversight and are in desperate need of reform.

Taxpayer-funded programs run by the three federal agencies — the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Justice Department — have provided billions of dollars worth of surplus Humvees, helicopters, ballistic vests and other military supplies to police departments since the 1990s.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the programs’ popularity and funding levels boomed.

“This isn’t about attacking police in this country, this is about reforming a program,” McCaskill said. “I think the fact that we have worked closely with pol in drafting this proposal I think it bodes well for us getting bipartisan support.”

McCaskill said her bill has the support of St. Louis County Chief of Police Jon Belmar, St. Louis Chief of Police Sam Dotson and Kansas City Chief of Police Darryl Forté, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and the National Tactical Officers Association.

Conspicuously absent from the list was the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union.

To reach Lindsay Wise, call 202-383-6007 or send email to lwise@mcclatchydc.com. On Twitter: @lindsaywise.

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