Prompted by recent violent conflict between police in Ferguson, Missouri, and demonstrators angered over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teen, politicians on Capitol Hill held a congressional hearing on Tuesday to discuss the militarization of police, focusing on whether small-town law enforcement officers need armored vehicles, automatic weapons and camouflage uniforms.
The hearing came a day ahead of a planned protest on Wednesday afternoon aimed at shutting down I-70 in St. Louis County, reportedly in protest against Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's decision not to appoint a special prosecutor to review the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The Senate hearing focused on examining the Defense Department transfer program, known as the 1033 program, and the proper role and techniques in which supplies, tactical and military-style equipment should be used. The hearings also focused on whether Congress could do more to hold law enforcement officials accountable.
The federal government has given roughly $5.1 billion in military equipment to local authorities since the program was created in 1990.
"These programs were established with a very good intention: to provide equipment that would help law enforcement perform their duties," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee. "The question is whether what our police receive matches what they truly need to uphold the law."
Officers in Ferguson took to the streets wearing riot gear and riding in armored vehicles, deploying tear gas to keep control of protests that erupted in the aftermath of Brown's death. Critics said such action exacerbated protests and blurred the lines between cop and soldier.
Defense Undersecretary Alan Estevez told lawmakers state coordinators are ultimately responsible for vetting requests for guns, the multi-ton vehicles originally designed to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq safe, and other equipment the military no longer needs.
The hearing also revealed bipartisan skepticism on the militarization of police departments. Why, legislators asked, do local agencies need automatic weapons, sniper rifles and armored personnel carriers?
"We’re on dangerous ground of undermining the very principles that built the country," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. said. "It’s hard to see a difference between the militarized and increasingly federalized force we see in towns across America and the force that [Founding Father James] Madison had in mind when he said 'a standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be a safe companion to liberty.'"
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, questioned why more heavy-duty armored vehicles have been given to local police agencies than state National Guard units.
"Could it be the guard doesn't want them because they know they tear up roads, flip easily and have limited applicability?" McCaskill asked the witnesses.
But others, like Mark Lomax, a former Pennsylvania state police major and the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said there are times when such equipment is necessary to protect law enforcement.
"The threat that firearms pose to law enforcement officers and the public during violent, critical incidents have proven armored rescue vehicles have become as essential as individually worn body armor or helmets when saving lives," he testified.
But Dr. Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, said cutting off supplies of military weaponry to civilian police was necessary. He blamed America's war on crime, drugs and terrorism for spurring "widespread police militarization."
"By declaring war, we have opened the door for outfitting our police to be soldiers with a warrior mindset," Kraska said.
With wire services. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.