A hearing Tuesday by Senator Claire McCaskill’s Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight will examine the use of military equipment by local police departments. Commonly referred to as the “militarization of police forces,” the issue is one of those pushed to the forefront by unrest in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting. Police there arrived at the scene of protests in military vehicles and wearing full body armor, drawing criticism from some in the public and political circles.
Among those calling attention to the issue on the House side are Missouri Congressmen William Lacy Clay and Emanuel Cleaver, II. They recently met with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about it.
“It looked more like Fallujah than Ferguson,” Cleaver says he told the secretary of his visit with Congressman Clay to the North St. Louis County community in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.
“We saw firsthand the MRAPs moving down the streets of Ferguson. We saw the heavy equipment. We saw people with military helmets on and rotating around at the top of one of the vehicles with the big machine guns,” says Cleaver.
Cleaver says he and Clay shared with Hagel their concerns about the police use of military equipment, and he says polling data shows Americans share that concern.
“While we are not suggesting that the program be discontinued completely, we’re saying that if your community is too small to train people on how to use this equipment, if you can’t afford to train the people on how to use equipment, the chances are great that you don’t deserve and don’t need and can’t afford to have the equipment,” says Cleaver.
Cleaver says there are some places that have a clear need for the military surplus equipment to protect against terrorist attacks – he lists New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco as examples – but says smaller communities and counties don’t need it.
“With all due respect,” says Cleaver, “I don’t think Al Qaeda’s planning an attack on McDonald’s in Ferguson. We need to look at the program closely.”
Cleaver says since his meeting with Hagel he has been notified that an executive branch review of the program would begin immediately.