Coburn: 'Dangerous' Military-to-Police Program Threatens 'Very Principles That Built the Country'

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee heard today that nearly all states in the union have accepted billions worth of surplus military equipment for their law enforcement agencies, with Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) calling the creeping militarization of police "dangerous ground" that threatens to undermine "the very principles that built the country."

"Protect and serve. Our founders saw no role for the federal government in state and local police forces. None. And yet we -- what we have seen is, on the basis of what we saw on 9/11, what seems to be an overreaction and a progress to where the federal government in law enforcement is doing the same thing it's done in every other area when it comes to the General Welfare Clause and the Commerce Clause," Coburn said.

"It's hard to see a difference between the militarized and increasingly federalized police force we see in towns across America today and the force that Madison had in mind when he said a standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be a safe companion to liberty," he added. "I have some real heartburn with not just the 1033 program, with the UASI grants, with the -- some of the Justice Department grants, and with a lot of the Homeland Security grants in terms of how they've been utilized, what they've been utilized for."

Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) stressed that the hearing wasn't called to adjudicate the Michael Brown shooting case, but in light of the Ferguson protests the committee reviewed the $5 billion in surplus Defense Department equipment granted to police since 1997.

"These programs were established with a very good intention: to provide equipment that would help law enforcement perform their duties," Carper said. "And the question is whether what our police receive match what they truly need to uphold the law."

Fresh from a recess of protests in her home state, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she approached Carper about holding the hearing "because of the shock and sadness I felt as I saw events unfolding" in Ferguson.

"I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis being transformed with vivid images, powerful images, across this country into a war zone, complete with camouflage, tear gas, rubber bullets, armored vehicles and laser sights on assault weapons," McCaskill said.

"While this hearing may reveal many strong arguments why some of this equipment may be helpful for the safety of police officers in certain situations, I am confident that militarized policing tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly," she added, saying the Ferguson demonstrators "did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants."

McCaskill said Texas law enforcement agencies now have 73 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles handed down from the military, while the National Guard there has only six. In Florida, the National Guard has no MRAPs while police agencies have 45.

The Defense Logistics Agency also reported to the committee that about 36 percent of all equipment given to police by the DoD is brand new or like new. "Why are we buying things in the Department of Defense merely to turn around and give them away?" McCaskill asked.

Alan Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition technology and logistics, said the "transfer of excess property to law enforcement agencies is a congressionally authorized program designed to ensure good stewardship of taxpayer resources."

More than 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies actively participate in the program, he said, in 49 states and three U.S. territories. Among the "controlled property" distributed to law enforcement over the past 12 months are more than 92,000 small arms, 44,000 night-vision devices, 52,000 Humvees, and 617 MRAPs.

"The department does not provide tanks, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, crew-served weapons, or uniforms. DOD has provided two Humvees, one generator, and one cargo trailer to the Ferguson Police Department. Additionally, DOD has provided to St. Louis county police departments six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, one ordinance disposal robot, 3 helicopters, 7 Humvees, and 2 night-vision devices," Estevez said.

"Property obtained through this program has been used extensively both for protection of law enforcement officers and the public, as well as for first-responder disaster relief support."