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Police militarization under scrutiny on Capitol Hill

U.S. lawmakers said Tuesday they were considering doing more to monitor and hold accountable police departments across the United States that obtain sophisticated military equipment from the federal government.

Homeland Security and defence department programs provide rifles, armoured vehicles

Police in Ferguson, Mo., were equipped with military gear during protests against the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last month. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

U.S. lawmakers said Tuesday they were considering doing more to monitor and hold accountable police departments across the United States that obtain sophisticated military equipment from the federal government.

U.S. government programs to help local police agencies obtain military-grade equipment evolved in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but more than a decade later lawmakers are questioning why small town police departments need armoured vehicles, automatic weapons and camouflage uniforms.

"How do they decide an MRAP is appropriate?" Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., asked officials from the Homeland Security, Defence and Justice departments of the 617 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles given to local authorities in recent years.

The question is whether what our police receive matches what they truly need to uphold the law.- Delaware Sen. Tom Carper

"It's not a truck. It is a ... offensive weapon," he said Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

About $5.1 billion in military equipment has been given to local authorities since a Defence Department transfer program was created in 1990.

The new scrutiny on Capitol Hill was prompted by weeks of violent conflicts between police in Ferguson, Missouri, and protesters upset about the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old. Most military equipment is provided to local police under a program administered by Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

"These programs were established with a very good intention: to provide equipment that would help law enforcement perform their duties," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of that Senate committee. "The question is whether what our police receive matches what they truly need to uphold the law."

Emerging from a lengthy back-and-forth with the officials who oversee equipment transfer and grant programs was a clear trading of blame for what lawmakers described as a lack of oversight.
Police in combat gear take up position to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, questioned why more heavy-duty armoured vehicles have been given to local police agencies than state National Guard units.

"Could it be the Guard doesn't want them because they know they tear up roads, flip easily and have limited applicability?" McCaskill asked the witnesses.

Defence Undersecretary Alan Estevez told lawmakers state coordinators are ultimately responsible for vetting requests for guns, the multi-ton vehicles originally designed to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq safe from roadside bombs, and other equipment the military no longer needs.

The hearing also revealed bipartisan skepticism about why local police agencies need automatic weapons, sniper rifles and armoured personnel carriers among other equipment.

"When was the last time we have seen what you have given been used ... other than the response to (Boston), against counterterrorism? When was another time?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Military gear used for riot suppression 

FEMA Assistant Administrator Brian Kamoie said military-style equipment bought by local and state police agencies helped deal with two terrorist-related incidents, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the attempted Times Square bombing.

He told Coburn that he was unaware that bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat by a Boston-area homeowner, not a helicopter with infrared equipment.

FEMA grant purchase are intended to be used strictly for anti-drug or terrorism-related incidents, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he worried that police departments are increasingly relying on such equipment to tamp down riots, like in Ferguson.

"They think these are for riot suppression," Paul said. "There have been maybe two instances of terrorism and we've spent billions and billions of dollars. Really (this gear) shouldn't be on anyone's list of authorized equipment."

McCaskill questioned why 36 per cent of the equipment passed from the Pentagon to local authorities was new.

"What in the world are we doing buying things we don't use?" McCaskill asked. "I guarantee, the stuff you are giving away, you are continuing to buy."

Lawmakers also pressed the officials on training and oversight of how equipment is used by local authorities.

Estevez and Kamoie said there is no federal oversight of training to use the MRAPs, automatic weapons and other tactical gear.

The Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs offers and encourages training, but doesn't require it, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason told lawmakers.

Training and how the gear is ultimately deployed is left to the states, Estevez added.

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