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September-11-14

Senate Holds Hearing on Police Militarization One Month After Michael Brown's Death

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) led an oversight hearing Tuesday in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee highlighting growing concerns about the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies. The hearing coincided with the one-month anniversary of 18-year-old Michael Brown's shooting death by Ferguson, Missouri Police officer Darren Wilson.

The most glaring findings from Tuesday's hearing stemmed from the mismanagement of equipment inventory by the Department of Defense (DOD), which has led some local law enforcement agencies to be more outfitted than their state National Guard. More than 450 weapons were lost by state and local law enforcement agencies, and more than one-third of all equipment issued by the DOD was gently or never used.

The hearing featured testimony from expert witnesses - none of whom had met before the events in Ferguson - who administer funds tied to the Department of Defense (DOD) 1033 Program, which allows local police departments to acquire military equipment. The second panel of the hearing featured witnesses familiar with the effect of militarization on local policing.

According to testimony from Sen. Carper, the 1033 Program has shuttled an estimated $5 billion in DOD surplus supplies and equipment to law enforcement since 1997. Since 2011, more than $1.3 billion in equipment was dispersed to law enforcement agencies nationwide. In the same time period, some local law enforcement agencies - including a few college campus-affiliated police departments - received three times as many rifles from the DOD as there are officers on staff. Carper noted that the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security also administer grant programs that can be used to fund military-grade equipment like armored vests and vehicles.

"I heard reports from my constituents about aggressive police actions being used against protesters, well before any violence occurred," McCaskill, who traveled to Ferguson in the days following the shooting to meet with community leaders and residents in her jurisdiction, said. "Like many of you, I saw armored vehicles with a sniper pointing a rifle at unarmed protesters in the middle of the day. I was shocked to see the way the police were deploying this military equipment against residents of Missouri who were exercising their First Amendment rights."

"[I]t is a sad commentary on race in America that this is not a new phenomenon to most Americans of color," NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton wrote in his testimony, calling attention to the long-standing history of police militarization and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. "Given that for nearly a quarter of a decade, since 1989, military equipment has been used by law enforcement agencies to fight 'the war on drugs,' it should be no surprise, then, that racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, unfortunately, have grown accustomed to seeing weapons of war in our communities, on our streets, and even entering our homes."

Shelton cited data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 2014 report titled "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. Noting the rise and subsequent deployment of SWAT teams in the "war on drugs", the ACLU found that more than 42 percent of people impacted by the use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant were African American. Another 12 percent were Latino. The ACLU concluded, "The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color."

Sen. McCaskill discussed mandating police use of body-cameras and implementing guidelines for how local police departments should use military-grade equipment. McCaskill also discussed ways federal officials could work to increase transparency in reporting how such equipment is used.

Media Resources: Senator Claire McCaskill Press Release 9/9/14; US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs 9/9/14; American Civil Liberties Union 6/14