The House voted not to demilitarize cops just two months ago. Will it be different after Ferguson?

August 18

On June 19, the House voted on an amendment to a Department of Defense appropriations bill authored by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). In short, the amendment would have prevented the military from distributing to local police forces some of heavy weapons and vehicles that the country has seen deployed in response to unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

The amendment failed by a wide margin. But the next time such a vote occurs -- and its increasingly likely that it will -- the results might be very different.


A tactical truck in Ferguson. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes)

The Grayson amendment didn't go as far as the bill proposed by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that we looked at last week. Grayson's effort prohibited the Department of Defense's 1033 program from transferring "aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents (including chemical agents, biological agents, and associated equipment), launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines, or nuclear weapons" to local cops. (Very few of whom have much need for nukes.)

The vote broke down like this.

A strong contingent of California Democrats voted for the amendment, as did Johnson. The 19 Republican votes included Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and several tea party stalwarts. But it wasn't really close. Among those voting no: Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), whose district includes Ferguson.

Post-Ferguson, the tenor on Capitol Hill appears to have changed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has called for reforms to the Defense Department program. On Friday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) indicated that he would call for a review of the program. "Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals," he wrote in a statement. "We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents." As many have noted -- none more thoroughly than the Post's Radley Balko -- the armaments of many small police forces now far exceeds any drug- or terror-related need.

Adam Blickstein, a former Defense public affairs officer, tweeted his support for reforms on Monday. "Pentagon should announce halt to its 1033 program, suspend all transfer of military grade equipment to local police," he wrote, later adding that he assumes "there'd be fans in Congress from both sides."

There were in June -- just not nearly enough to have the bill pass.

But this would hardly be the first time that real-world events changed the tenor of and rekindled a previously settled debate. One recent example: the debate over reforming the National Security Agency. Before the leaks from Edward Snowden, there was little momentum towards curtailing the National Security Agency's ability to collect information on targets. After, there was. An amendment to an appropriations bill in 2013 sponsored by Amash that would have cut funding for a subset of the NSA's spying nearly passed the House, losing by 12 votes. Earlier this year, a similar, more limited amendment passed easily.

The latter vote occurred in the midst of the still-ongoing release of new details about NSA spying. Whether or not this moment in Ferguson will be enough to overpower support for the program from law enforcement remains to be seen.

The response by law enforcement to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., is being criticized for its level of force and use of military-style equipment. We've labeled the weapons and gear being used by police in these photos from Ferguson. (Tom LeGro and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)
Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · August 18