FERGUSON, Mo. — Two African-American lawmakers from Missouri met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday afternoon at the Pentagon to urge him to curtail the transfer of military hardware to local police forces.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D), one of the two lawmakers, said the scene in Ferguson over the past two weeks reminded him of combat footage from Iraq.
“It looked like Fallujah. It looked like the Iraqi war,” he said in an interview. “Rand Paul was right. He talked about how we cannot militarize our cities. That what it looked like.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I grew up in the South during the civil rights days,” he said.
He and Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said the military-grade weapons and equipment donated by the Pentagon to local agencies were never intended to be used against citizens engaged in civil disobedience.
“My concerns about the program is that it’s not being used for its original intent, which was to arm police forces for a terrorism act or a well-armed drug cartel,” Clay said in an interview Thursday. “In the last week, I have witnessed my own constituents who are peaceful protesters having this military equipment used against them.
St. Louis County police officers have been patrolling Ferguson, Mo., in combat gear and armed with assault rifles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in response to mass protests of the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown.
Clay, who represents the residents of Ferguson, said the response from police has been excessive and blamed the hostile atmosphere to the profusion of military hardware.
“They are staring down the barrels of these machine guns and these heavy armored vehicles and I think it’s overkill,” he said of the protesters.
Clay said he was told by a former Marine that police officers deployed in Ferguson have violated standard military operating rules against pointing weapons at unarmed civilians.
Cleaver said lawmakers and Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the theory that the militarized police response intensified the violence of the protests in Ferguson over the past week.
Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief, recently questioned the militarized response from his department — which along with the Missouri Highway Patrol has taken the lead in responding to the protests — was appropriate.
“My personal side was concerned about the things I saw transpiring in Ferguson,” Dotson told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “My gut told me what I was seeing were not tactics that I would use in the city and I would never put officers in situations that I would not do myself.”
Clay and Cleaver believe Hagel can act on his own authority to limit the transfer of weapons and equipment to small police forces that may not have adequate training.
The Pentagon gives excess hardware to police departments around the country through the 1033 program, which Congress set up in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.
The program was initially set up to give local police departments enough firepower to combat well-armed gangs. It was expanded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Paul, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2016, wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine that the clashes in Ferguson provided a compelling argument for lowering the combat readiness of civilian police departments.
“Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies,” he wrote.
Legislation ending the program has little chance of passing through Congress. The House has already voted 355-62 to defeat an amendment sponsored by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) to demilitarize police departments. Clay and Cleaver both voted against it.
The Missouri lawmakers say they do not want to end weapons and vehicle transfers to all police departments, just to those in small towns such as Ferguson that face little threat from al Qaeda or drug cartels.
“The request for the meeting was to discuss the 1033 program and to speak experientially about what it does to a community, particularly a small community, to see those MRAPS moving down the middle of a street in America and the impact it has on the citizens,” Cleaver said. “In a small town it gives the appearance of the military patrolling an occupied territory.
“There’s a need for some major adjustments to the program,” he added.
Cleaver said Hagel does not need additional authority from Congress.
“I am convinced that the secretary can make the changes in the program without Congress giving direction,” he said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, took an important step to de-escalating the standoff in Ferguson by announcing Thursday that the National Guard would be withdrawn from the area.
The Guard troops were deployed to the area to help secure the police command center set up in the parking lot of a Target shopping center at the end of West Florissant Avenue, where most of the protests have taken place.
Clay applauded the development.
“Hopefully it means the situation is normalizing and calming,” he said.
But he said the civil unrest could return if residents believe Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, will not undergo a full and fair investigation.
“My constituents want justice for Michael Brown’s family and for their community and until there’s justice delivered, it’s not going to be peaceful in Ferguson,” he said.