After the unrest in Ferguson, and the media images of highly equipped police, the “militarization” of police departments became a hot-button public policy issue.
After traveling the state on Monday, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said law enforcement officials have told him there’s misinformation about the type of equipment used in Ferguson.
“I’ve seen all the vehicles that were at Ferguson,” Blunt said. “They were generally under Homeland Security. I don’t know if any of those vehicles had anything to do with military surplus. They were all defensive in nature. But if you’d looked at some of the coverage on this – the national coverage – you’d assume there were tanks and handheld weapons that nobody could get their hands on.
“Neither of those things are the case,” he added.
Blunt spent the afternoon with local law enforcement in Clayton, including officials with the St. Louis County Police Department. The equipment that the agency used during protests sparked an international outcry – and hearings into whether it was appropriate to give local departments military equipment.
But Blunt said most of the equipment that local agencies get is communications-related, which became a priority after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Humvees or BearCats that bigger departments receive, he said, can be critical in emergency situations.
“In Kansas City, they tell me they use those to go to incidents at least twice every single month,” Blunt said. “And often if you’ve got somebody that’s maybe a deranged shooter in a building, suddenly seeing that vehicle pull up – even though it’s a defensive vehicle – makes them feel a lot less like they’re going to get away with whatever they thought they were going to do.”
Still, Blunt said, “There are legitimate questions about the federal involvement here. One of the things that came out of one of the hearings was that 39 percent of all the surplus equipment from the military had never been used. Now that’s a legitimate question. … Why does the Department of Education need a SWAT team? That’s probably a legitimate federal question.”
“What local police wear and when they decide to put it on or what kind of equipment they need is probably not something that is best decided in Washington, D.C.,” he added.
Gabe Crocker of the St. Louis County Police Association was at the meeting with Blunt. He said he "was really glad that someone from the national political scene" was willing to meet with local law enforcement "to discuss our equipment and discuss tactics so that he would be more informed when it came to public policy or lawmaking."
"I don't think it's unreasonable for this large metropolitan area to have vehicles that allow our tactical officers to respond to a wide variety of situations," Crocker said. "I would never want to be the politician who disarmed local enforcement from being able to properly respond to a school shooting where we're not able to rescue school children that are stuck in a building because politicians that live most of the year in Washington, D.C. thought those vehicles looked a little too scary."
Blunt said he had “secondary” discussions about the renewed protests in Ferguson, which have resulted in arrests and placed law enforcement agencies under further scrutiny. But the main topic of discussion, he said, was law enforcement equipment.
“All the agencies involved have said, as you would after something like this, ‘we learned some things that we’d do differently next time,” he said. “And that’s easy to do looking back. There are lessons here to be learned. But I’m just trying to gather information about how this equipment is used and how you get it.”