Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed deep skepticism about the Defense Department's 1033 program, which since the 1990s has provided local police departments with more than $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment, including assault rifles, body armor, and armored vehicles. The Pentagon says the program is intended to help police combat terrorists and drug cartels, but the senators suggested some police departments may be overstepping their authority by using this military equipment for crowd control at riots.
The immediacy of the crisis in Ferguson has clearly eased, but the legacy of recent developments in this Missouri community lives on.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), for example, vowed two weeks ago to take the lead on examining the militarization of local police departments, and yesterday, she did just that in her capacity as the chair of Senate Homeland Security's panel on contracting oversight. Pentagon officials who testified at the hearing got an earful.
What was perhaps most striking about yesterday's Senate hearing, however, weren't the pointed questions directed at Defense Department officials. Rather, it was the unanimity on display -- for all the deep, partisan tensions on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans, at least on this committee, were entirely on the same page when it came to the Pentagon's 1033 program.
McCaskill took the lead, but her concerns were quickly echoed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Indeed, Paul noted that nearly 12,000 bayonets had been sent to local police, leading the senator to ask a perfectly sensible question: "What purpose are bayonets being given out for?"
Alan Estevez, the Pentagon's principal deputy under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, replied, "Bayonets are available under the program. I can't answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for."
And that's part of the problem. No one else seems able to answer it, either.
As for the road ahead, the bipartisan agreement about the nature of the problem is welcome, but enacting real policy changes will, of course, be more difficult. The Republican-led House has expressed zero interest in even having a debate about the issue, and the White House's review of existing executive-branch policy might take a while.
What's more, the New York Times added this morning that there's a "political hurdle" quietly weighing on some lawmakers: "Any effort to reverse the longstanding policy of arming and fortifying American cities will run into criticism that Washington is leaving towns unprepared for terrorist attacks."
Still, the imagery out of Ferguson has not faded and the revulsion many Americans felt seeing weapons of war on a U.S. city's streets, aimed at unarmed civilians, remains very real. Yesterday's Senate hearing was a positive first step; here's hoping it's not the last.