Public unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and a tragic accident in Georiga are sparking rising concern about the federal funding of military style equipment for local police departments.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. questioned officials about the recent potentially unauthorized use of vehicles in Ferguson, Mo. in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs meeting.
“We’re horrified by seeing an unarmed man with his hands over his head being confronted by an armored personnel carrier. We’re horrified by seeing an un-armed man with his hands over his head being confronted by a man with a drawn assault weapon. We’re horrified by images of tear gas being shot into the yards of peoples personal homes who were protesting,” Paul said regarding images of local police in Ferguson, Missouri using federally funded FEMA equipment to arrest protesters.
Many people became aware of the military style equipment being sent to local police departments through media coverage of the Ferguson, MO. protest regarding a police shooting of an unarmed black teen.
In September of 2014, National Public Radio published a report examining the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office. The shocking report shows that almost 80,000 assault rifles, almost 12,000 bayonets, almost 4,000 combat knives, over 200 grenade launchers and other equipment totaling over a billion dollars have been issued to cities across the country. Click here for the full NPR report.
Sen. McCaskill grilled the panel, demanding reports of the usage of military-grade equipment.
“I would like all the usage data that would show what military weaponry, camoflauge uniforms, helmets, all the things we saw in Ferguson, what data you have that has actually been utilized by the recipients of your funds,” McCaskill said.
“One of the fundamental things about America is dissent, and the ability to have dissent, and it needs to be peaceful. There needs to be repercussions for people who do not act in a peaceful way, but confronting protestors 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. But you sort of obscure that separation if you allow the police to become the military,” Paul said.
Almost $700 million was spent through the program on MRAP or mine resistant ambush protected and other vehicles.
Police in Ferguson, MO. used MRAP vehicles to end protests following a police shooting in Aug. 2014.
“In FEMA’s authorized equipment list there’s actually written descriptions for how the equipment should be used and it says it’s specifically not supposed to be used for riot suppression.” Paul said. “The images show us clearly large pieces of equipment that were bought with your grants being used in that riot suppression.”
Many people are concerned that allowing local police forces to use FEMA military style equipment could create a slippery slope. Anything labeled as counter-narcotics or counter-terrorism gives local police forces access to this FEMA equipment.
In a disturbing case in Cornelia, Ga. on May 28, 2014, SWAT police from Habersham county injured an infant after throwing a flash grenade into a sleeping family’s room in an un-announced 2 am raid.
“The militarization of police is something that has gotten so far out of control, and we’ve allowed it to descend along with not a great protection of our civil liberties as well, so we say we’re going to do this. It’s ok if its for drugs,” Paul said.
“Look at the instances of what has happened in recent times, the instance in Georgia just a couple of months ago of an infant, in a crib getting a percussion grenade in through a window in a no-knock raid.”
While speaking to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Alan Estevez, Principal Deputy Defense Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, admitted that FEMA equipment is being used in raids.
“Obviously we do it Senator, we’re going to look at that.” Estevez said. “I can give you anecdotes where mine-resistant protective vehicles have protected police forces in shoot-outs.