WASHINGTON - US lawmakers alarmed by the aggressive police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are pushing for Congress to limit the Pentagon's ability to provide civilian police departments with military equipment such as armored vehicles designed for the battlefield.
Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson wrote colleagues in the House of Representatives this week seeking support for legislation to curtail a program that passes surplus equipment from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to municipal US police forces, free of charge. Because of the program “our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces,” Johnson said.
Three other Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee wrote to Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, to ask for a committee hearing on “recent incidents of local law enforcement using excessive force.” They pointed to events in Ferguson, where demonstrators have protested the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by police, and elsewhere.
The “brutal force” used against the Ferguson demonstrators, including the use of riot gear, armored vehicles, and tear gas and rubber bullets, raised concerns that "local law enforcement is out of control," the lawmakers said. The letter was written by Representatives John Conyers, Steve Cohen and Bobby Scott.
Police named Darren Wilson as the officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown last Saturday in Ferguson, a largely black suburb of St. Louis. Days of protests over Brown's death have cast a spotlight on racial tensions in greater St. Louis, where civil rights groups have complained in the past of racial profiling by police.
A House Judiciary Committee spokeswoman stopped short of promising a hearing on the Ferguson events, but said that Goodlatte supported efforts to conduct a thorough investigation into the events surrounding Brown's death. “The committee will be monitoring the results of the investigation and surrounding events,” the spokeswoman said.
In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, expressed shock at the "military-like" police response in Ferguson. "Equipping police officers with the tools of war does nothing to repair a torn community," he said. A Johnson spokesman said that he would introduce his bill when Congress returns to work in September. It would limit the type of equipment that the Pentagon can transfer to police.
Johnson's letter said that numerous cities and towns around the country had acquired free MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored personnel vehicles from war zones in recent months. “Unprecedented amounts of military equipment” were given away not only to police in cities, but on college campuses, Johnson wrote. “Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP. Apparently college kids are getting too rowdy.”
The issue was already percolating in Congress before the Ferguson events. In June, the House of Representatives voted 355-62 against a proposal by Democrat Alan Grayson of Florida to block funding for the military equipment transfers to police.