Post Ferguson, senators question military-to-police weapons programs

The fallout from the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last month continued on Capitol Hill today. During a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, senators from both parties grilled administration witnesses about programs that provide military-grade equipment and weapons to local police forces.

While protesting the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb, demonstrators were met with military trucks and combat gear and weapons, prompting senators like Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, to deride the practice.

At today’s hearing, McCaskill didn’t hide her outrage at how the Defense Department’s military surplus program is administered.

“What in the world are we doing buying things that we’re not using?” McCaskill said in an exchange with Alan Estevez of the Defense Department. “Isn’t that a fundamental problem you need to get at before we even talk about whether all this stuff is being used appropriately, or being used with training, or being used in a way that makes sense?”

McCaskill criticized the Defense Department program, in particular, for giving mine-resistant trucks, also known as MRAPS, to police departments.

“Does it make you uncomfortable that there are states where the National Guard has no MRAPs and the police departments have them everywhere?” she asked Estevez.

Kentucky Republican Rand Paul voiced his frustration with military-to-police weapons program while the Ferguson protests were erupting. Today, the libertarian said the militarization of police forces discourage peaceful dissent.

“Confronting protesters with armored personnel carriers is thoroughly un-American and for 150 years we’ve had rules separating the military, keeping the military out of policing affairs,” Paul said, “but you sort of obscure that separation if you allow the police to become the military.”

Estevez and representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice vowed to review the programs, but often evaded pointed questions about the programs.

Peter Kraska, a professor of justice studies at the University of Eastern Kentucky, told senators during a second panel that the federal government started to provide equipment to local police as part of an effort to fight drug crime. The Department of Defense program dates back to the 1990s.

“The federal government has increasingly since 9/11 played a significant role in accelerating these trends toward militarization,” Kraska said.

McCaskill promised to hold more hearings on the topic.