The images of Ferguson that most Americans saw included officers in camouflage uniforms, with sniper rifles mounted atop heavy military-type vehicles, and white-hot flood lights illuminating clouds of tear gas. The scenes were more reminiscent of government troops putting down unrest in the Middle East than in the American Midwest.
Those photos, combined with the national media coverage, sparked a national debate: Are local police departments becoming too militarized?
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says there has not been adequate oversight of three federal programs that make it possible for local law enforcement agencies to acquire such equipment. She says programs administered by the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice all need to be looked at in detail. In a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio Tuesday, McCaskill said she has questions about the three programs, “Are they working together; are we duplicating efforts; are they augmenting one another, complementing one another?”
McCaskill, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight, is set to conduct a hearing next Tuesday. She says she has invited people from all sides to hear several perspectives, including those of local law enforcement. “I’m not going into this assuming that all of these programs are bad or that they’re a waste, or that some of them haven’t done good, but I saw, first-hand, where some of this equipment contributed to the problem rather than solving the problem,” she said. “I saw at some point during the Ferguson unrest where I thought that the (St. Louis) County Police had gone overboard in terms of its militarized presence. On the other hand, I saw one of these vehicles save some police officers by getting them out of a very dangerous situation when the crowd began to be infiltrated with antagonistic people who wanted a violent confrontation with police,” McCaskill said. “I think everyone needs to realize that sometimes this equipment can, in fact, perform well under certain circumstances,” she said.
Beyond debating the more difficult question of whether an excessive show of force by police contributed to the violence in Ferguson, McCaskill also has questions about the economics of communities acquiring surplus federal equipment. “Are local governments prioritizing what they really need or are they taking this stuff because they can get it for nothing and they get money to maintain it,” she asked. “I think we’re going to find that in most instances a lot of this equipment that is more military in nature has had very little, if any, use for the majority of communities that have received it,” McCaskill said.
Possible role for the National Guard
Historically, when violent protests or riots exceeded the ability of local and state police to quell unrest, police departments would ask a state’s governor to call out the National Guard. McCaskill says putting surplus military equipment in the hands of the National Guard may be something worth considering. “Because frankly, if you're to the point where you think you need military vehicles rolling through the streets and you need snipers with lasers on people’s chests, then I think you’ve probably got a crisis that the governor is going to want to be engaged in and is going to want to be looking at whether or not the National Guard could be helpful in those circumstances,” said McCaskill.
McCaskill sees two possible functions for the National Guard in the discussion over the militarization of local law enforcement agencies. The first is training as to the appropriate use of military equipment in certain circumstances. “I do think that there is obviously a lot of expertise around the issue of when does the show of force calm a crowd and when does a show of force make things worse,” she said.
The second potential role for the National Guard would be to warehouse such military type vehicles at its armories across the state. “It might be something that would allow some of the costs to be shared,” McCaskill said. It might also make “some of this equipment available at an even lower cost for some of the smaller departments that don’t have resources to warehouse this equipment and certainly don’t have the money to maintain it,” she said.
Last month, Reps. Lacy Clay of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, both Democrats, met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to urge him to make changes to the Defense Department’s 1033 program for surplus equipment. At the time of the meeting, Hagel had reportedly already met with members of his senior staff to ask questions about the program, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Adm. John Kirby. Two days after the meeting between Hagel and the two Missouri representatives, President Obama ordered a review of the federal surplus property programs.
The hearing before McCaskill’s subcommittee is set for the day after law makers return from their five-week August break.