After delivering remarks last night from the White House, President Obama fielded some questions from reporters and made a comment that stood out for me. “[T]he vast majority of the community [in Ferguson] has been working very hard to try to make sure that this becomes an opportunity for us to seize the moment and turn this into a positive situation,” he said.
It sounded like a nice-but-unrealistic goal. Years of systemic problems contributed to these crisis conditions, and the idea of turning the Michael Brown tragedy into something constructive is hard to fathom.
That said, over the summer, there was a fair amount of interest in one specific area: the militarization of local law enforcement. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) chaired a Senate hearing in September, and reforms to the Pentagon’s “1033” program were endorsed by some Republicans, including Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In the House, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) drafted legislation.
So what happened? Part of the problem is the political world’s short attention span. Congress was interested in local law enforcement having military equipment for policing, right up until it was time for a debate on whether President Obama was soft on Ebola Terrorists in Mexico.
But as Evan McMorris-Santoro reported, other considerations also played a factor.
Police groups rallied around 1033, scaring off many potential supporters, according to staff involved with moving the issue forward on the Hill. Police lobbyists argue that the equipment provided by 1033 keeps officers safe and keeps them prepared to deal with terrorist attacks and other threats.“We got a lot of pushback we got from law enforcement,” said one Republican staffer involved in the militarization debate. The police lobby spread “misunderstanding” about the congressional efforts, which were by this point generally united in banning only the deadly equipment from 1033 while leaving the rest of the program largely in place.The calendar moved into election season, and members grew skittish about putting controversial votes on the floor. “Everybody kind of hit the pause button,” the staffer said.
And after a few months, an extended pause looks an awful lot like a stop.
The odds of a Republican-led Congress tackling this next year are poor, so reform proponents are left to wonder what’s possible during the dwindling lame-duck session. There’s still a defense spending bill that lawmakers have to approve, which could be amended to include new 1033 limits and restrictions, but it’s a long shot.
Radley Balko, a prominent expert on police militarization, told BuzzFeed the result is a shift in focus – away from Washington and towards states and municipalities.
Even if action in Congress is less likely as August passes further and further into history, Balko said lawmakers across the country are re-examining the 1033 program and local police usage of combat gear in general.“These are all positive developments,” he said, adding, “there’s been some movement in the legislatures.”