Two panels debated whether it was constitutionally appropriate for local police departments, across the country, to use military style weapons as a measure of controlling community protests during a Senate hearing Sept. 9.
The Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, one of the federal agencies responsible for providing funding and equipment to police departments, questioned why many local police departments now use military equipment to control domestic situations, such as in the protests that occurred in response to the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), understood why protective gear for police was used in the Ferguson rioting and looting during the protests, but overall did not think SWAT gear was necessary on a daily basis.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chair of the committee, understood why protective gear for police was used in the Ferguson rioting and looting during the protests, but overall did not think SWAT gear was necessary on a daily basis, since most of the protests were peaceful.
She wanted to know the difference between “militarized and federalized” enforcement and the comparison between Ferguson and the Boston Marathon bombing.
“What is the solution if it is used primarily in wars,” she said. “Was there any oversight or correlation on the 1033 fund?”
The 1033 fund is an appropriations bill for the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 that “authorizes the Department of Defense to transfer excess military property to state and local law enforcement agencies.”
The state with the highest amount of funding in the program from 2011 to the present is Florida, receiving $266 million, while Alaska receives $849, 231, the lowest amount.
Washington, D.C. receives $4 million, Maryland receives $7 million; and Virginia receives $86 million.
“Today 80 percent of police departments have SWAT teams along with the very ‘stylized mindset’ in which Ferguson played a significant part,” Dr. Peter S. Kraska, professor at the school of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., said. He explained the military format of police, which began in the late 1980s and well into the 90s with the onslaught of drug raids, particularly in urban areas.
Wiley Price, a photojournalist with the St. Louis American newspaper, who was present during the Ferguson protests asked, “How much force is needed for angry protesters?”
“Much of the police were agitators instead of trying to maintain peace,” he continued.
Price said there has always been conflict between the community and local police in Ferguson.
Hilary O. Shelton, Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for Advocacy at the NAACP, believed a paradigm shift was necessary.
The police should “stop focusing on what people look like,” he said. “This is not a new phenomenon on people of color. People of color are being used as weapons of war and are being marginalized.”
Shelton said the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2013” and The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program were possible solutions to stopping racial profiling amongst enforcement authorities.
Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association said, “Lack of training and compliance standards are problems that contribute to why police behave the way they do.”
“Not only do they have a perception problem, but many lack training in the equipment they use. Much of the training is not required but voluntary,” he continued.
Other panel participants included, Alan F. Estevez, Department of Defense; Brian E. Kamoie, Department of Homeland Security; Karol Mason, Department of Justice and Chief Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting innovation and improvement in policing through research, technical assistance, training, professional services and communication programs.
Body cameras worn by police were encouraged by the panel to monitor police conduct.
On Sept. 12, the Justice Department released a 92-page report called Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned.
According to the Washington Times, the Metropolitan Police Department will launch a six-month pilot program of police wearing body cameras Oct.1. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has advocated for the use of body cameras since January due to corrupt police conduct in the District since last year.
“I want to reassure the residents of the District that they have a police force that is ethical,’” Lanier said. “Those few officers’ actions dishonor the oath that we all swore to uphold.”