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McCaskill Criticizes Programs That Supply Military Equipment To Police

Federal programs that give or pay for military-grade equipment for local police departments are coming under new scrutiny from the Senate Homeland Security panel. An oversight hearing on Tuesday was the first Congressional response to last month's turmoil in Ferguson, Mo. It was called for by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who has criticized the "militarization" of Ferguson's police force.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lawmakers were away from Washington when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri. But now they're back and they're having their say in the aftermath of the police shooting that left 18-year-old Michael Brown dead. Today Missouri senior Senator, Democrat Claire McCaskill, led a hearing on one issue raised by the shooting - the federal programs that send military grade equipment like armored personnel carriers and assault weapons to police departments. As NPR's David Welna reports, the senators found a lot to criticize.

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SENATOR TOM CARPER: This review by Congress is long overdue.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: That's Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. He opened today's hearing, but turned over the gavel to fellow Democrat Claire McCaskill, who requested the hearing. McCaskill quickly blasted programs being carried out by the Justice and Homeland Security Departments as well as the Pentagon.

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SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: We are pushing, in wholesale fashion, military equipment to local police departments.

WELNA: The Pentagon's witness at the hearing, Alan Estevez, took issue with McCaskill.

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ALAN ESTEVEZ: The Department of Defense does not push equipment on any police force. State and local law enforcement agencies decide what they need and access our access equipment through the respective state coordinators.

WELNA: But the Missouri Senator pointed out that the Pentagon has been giving away huge armored personnel carriers called MRAPS by the hundreds to local police departments, including to 13 police departments with fewer than 10 full-time sworn officers.

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MCCASKILL: MRAPS can be very dangerous, correct, Mr. Estevez? They flip?

ESTEVEZ: They're very heavy vehicles.

MCCASKILL: And there is - yet there is no requirement for training for any of these departments that are getting these vehicles.

ESTEVEZ: We can't provide training to police departments, senator.

WELNA: Estevez also acknowledged that the Pentagon gives away things like assault weapons, but does not know how they're employed.

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ESTEVEZ: The Department of Defense does not have the expertise in police force functions and cannot assess how equipment is used in the mission of individual law enforcement agencies.

WELNA: Kentucky Republican Rand Paul then pounced. He pointed to an analysis done by NPR of the Pentagon's so-called 1033 program.

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SENATOR RAND PAUL: Mr. Estevez, in the NPR investigation of the 1033 program, they list that 12,000 bayonets have been given out. What purpose are bayonets being given out for?

ESTEVEZ: Senator, bayonets are available under the program. I can't answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for.

PAUL: I can give you an answer - none.

WELNA: There were also questions for Estevez about just what role the Pentagon plays in the decision about who gets what of the things it gives away. He insisted it had a decisive role.

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ESTEVEZ: We do due diligence about numbers. If it's - an agency requests, you know, 100 rifles, and there's only 10 law enforcement officers, they don't get 100. They get 10.

WELNA: Senator McCaskill was not convinced.

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MCCASKILL: In the Lake Angelus Police Department in Michigan, you gave them 13 military assault weapons, since 2011. They have one full-time sworn officer.

WELNA: The Department of Homeland Security has given $41 billion in grants over the past 12 years to local police forces. The department's Brian Kamoie pointed to police efforts following the Boston Marathon bombing.

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BRIAN KAMOIE: Grant funded equipment, such as the forward-looking infrared camera on a Massachusetts State Police helicopter, enabled the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while enhancing the personal safety of law enforcement officers and protecting public safety.

WELNA: Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn shot back that federal grant money had nothing to do with the Boston bombing suspect's capture.

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SENATOR TOM COBURN: Tsarnaev was found because a guy went out to check his boat, because he saw the end of it up.

WELNA: And, Robert, the witnesses did say they expected changes in their programs. Senator McCaskill, for her part, promised more hearings.

SIEGEL: Well, more hearings is something that Congress can certainly do. But what else might the Congress do here?

WELNA: Well, lawmakers won't have much time to do anything in the short-term since they only plan to be in session 10 more days before the November elections. But I think today's hearing did point to a real need for Congress to reassess the laws it passed that are the basis of these programs, funding Police Departments. In many cases, there are virtually no strings attached to how military-grade equipment is used and there's just no policy to guide these agencies and how they should keep track of what they give away. This is a tricky issue because a lot of lawmakers want to keep this money and equipment flowing to their local police forces. And at the same time, after Ferguson, there's a lot more awareness that police militarization is an issue Congress is going to have to deal with.

SIEGEL: Would you expect bans on specific types of weapons that could then not be transferred to Police Departments?

WELNA: Well, there could be. The bayonets we heard Senator Paul mention for example are clearly on the list of things that might be rolled out. He says that should have been done last week. MRAPS could also be ruled out. Senator McCaskill put police departments on notice herself today. She said, if we're going to give you money, we're going to make you jump through a few hoops.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you David. That's NPR national security correspondent, David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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