How Obama can do more than “express concern” about violence in Ferguson, Mo.


President Barack Obama speaks about the situations in Iraq and in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in Edgartown, Mass.. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Obama called Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday to talk about the situation in Ferguson, Mo. "I expressed my concern over the violent turn that events have taken on the ground, and underscored that now is the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened," the president said of his conversation with Nixon, a Democrat. Attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., also issued a statement saying that during a time of intense strain between the police and the local community, he was “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message."

By Thursday evening, the situation in Ferguson had improved significantly after the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over security in the town; authorities have also accepted help from the Justice Department to handle the protests.

In the long-term, though, there are some policy options for how the administration can help the people of Ferguson and similar towns around the country where the use of military weaponry in police departments can spin out of control.

The Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense all run major programs providing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to local police departments. Often, these programs allow law enforcement to acquire heavy weaponry and armored vehicles with little or no value for policing.

The programs "all point to the same issue, which is the federal government fueling the militarization of local police," said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Holder said Thursday that the Department of Justice would work with police departments, including in Ferguson, on controlling crowds "without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force."

Holder's proposal is a useful one, but his counterparts at Homeland Security and the Pentagon have even more influence over local law enforcement. While Holder has comparatively little control over the Justice Department's grants, which are mandated by Congress, the other departments' programs are discretionary.

Homeland Security has delivered around $800 million in grants annually to local governments for counterterrorism measures (although the total has declined significantly in recent years). A report from the department's inspector general criticized the program, which lacked a system for holding grant recipients accountable for how they used the money.

The Pentagon's program is different: instead of awarding grants, the department makes in-kind transfers of surplus military equipment to local authorities, as The Post's Chris Ingraham and Thomas Gibbons-Neff has explained. These transfers have increased sharply as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have concluded, and the department transferred equipment worth nearly $500 million last year.

Earlier Thursday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) proposed a bill that would prohibit the Pentagon from transferring some military-grade equipment under this program. Obama doesn't have to wait for Congress, though. In the meantime, he has at least two options: instruct the Pentagon to to keep more of its armored vehicles and automatic weapons to itself, and require applicants for Homeland Security grant money to report more precisely how they use the funds.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Rep. Hank Johnson's party affiliation. He is a Democrat. This version has been corrected.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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