With the scars of violent protests still visible in Ferguson, Democratic Reps. Lacy Clay of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon Thursday night to discuss their concerns over the so-called “militarization” of local law enforcement.
“We are pleased to report that we had a productive, expansive and very encouraging meeting with Secretary Hagel,” the two said in a printed statement.
The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer sparked several nights of violent protests. The protestors were met by heavily armored combat vehicles and officers in camouflage combat-grade body armor, some with sniper rifles. The material came via the 1033 program, under which surplus military hardware is made available from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
The images of what appeared to be combat-ready forces arrayed against protestors flashed around the world in news and social media reports and quickly added to the tension on the streets. President Barack Obama returned from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and briefed White House reporters on the situation in Ferguson, saying the police use of military equipment “blurred the lines” between the military and local law enforcement in a manner contrary to American traditions.
Reps. Clay and Cleaver say they and their constituents believe the 1033 program must undergo a vigorous review and important changes to ensure public safety and the preservation of fundamental constitutional rights. “That includes the right to assemble and peacefully protest without the unacceptable threat of an overbearing police response which targets law-abiding citizens with military weapons and technology,” the two said.
“If there is any good that can come out of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, our hope is that this effort will spur a national discussion about how to achieve a fundamental shift in local law enforcement, away from military-style responses, and towards a more community-based policy,” they said.
In commenting on the situation in Ferguson, President Obama said the original idea of providing military hardware to local law enforcement agencies came in the wake of the terror attacks of September 2001. At the time, Obama said, there was bipartisan concern over the ability of state and local governments to respond to such attacks. But now the president says he believes there will be bi-partisan interest in re-examining both the 1033 program and grants for such surplus property funded through the Department of Homeland Security.
In a separate announcement Thursday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she will hold hearings on the issue next month as chairman of the Subcommittee on Financial Contracting Oversight. McCaskill says she plans to gather people from all sides to hear several perspectives, including those of local law enforcement.
Clay and Cleaver say they have asked Secretary Hagel to review the 1033 program and respond with his recommendations quickly.