The wounds of last month’s shooting death of Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb were reopened Tuesday, first in a national forum and then a local one.
The militarization of local law enforcement agencies, fueled in large part by federal equipment and funds, received a congressional trial at midday, the first such hearing since a national outcry over how police in Ferguson, Mo., responded to protests over the fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager.
On Tuesday night, the Ferguson City Council held a meeting in which it introduced a handful of planned changes whose purpose council member Mark Byrne described in a statement beforehand as being to “improve trust within the community.”
But those in attendance were clearly frustrated. More than three dozen people — several identifying themselves as “Mike Brown” — got up to voice their frustration and anger over their contention that the city government has supported racist policies. The council members were warned by several commenters that they were on notice and could expect to lose their positions.
“We’re not going to let you go back to business as usual,” one woman said.
Several noted the council’s relative lack of diversity. One of its six members is black, they noted, while two-thirds of the city population is African American.
The council, meeting for the first time since the shooting, introduced a slate of reforms to address other community con-cerns raised by the killing of the black teenager and its aftermath. The changes the council said it would approve include a citizen review board to oversee police, a reduction in fines and fees as a source of municipal revenue, and changes in court procedures to make them more fair to residents who live in poverty.
Earlier in Washington, senators criticized what they described as a lack of coordination, training and oversight by three federal programs, administered by the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, that transfer federal funds and equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The lawmakers argued that over recent decades the programs have contributed to increasingly militarized police forces.
“This is crazy out-of-control,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Tuesday’s hearing was a response to local police actions taken during the protests, riots and looting in Ferguson after the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Brown, 18, by a white police officer. Police monitored the protests from atop armored vehicles with weapons aimed at crowds and
responded to riots with tear gas while dressed in camouflage and toting shotguns, M-4 rifles and gas masks. The media images flowing from Ferguson provoked national outrage, with President Obama ordering a review of the programs that provide aid to local law enforcement agencies.
From the start of Tuesday’s congressional hearing before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, senators slammed the programs, suggesting they have undermined core constitutional principles.
“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 militarizing police tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), whose home state was the site of Brown’s shooting and the subsequent riots and protests.
Early in the hearing, McCaskill described what she saw as a lack of oversight of the programs, in particular the Defense Department’s1033 program, which has transferred more than $5.1 billion in equipment to local agencies since 1991.
She singled out the 624 MineResistant Armor-Protected vehicles, such as those employed in the war on terrorism, that have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies since 2011 “seemingly without regard to need or size of the agency that has received them,” she said. At least 13 local law enforcement agencies with fewer than 10 sworn, fulltime officers have received an MRAP. For example, the police department in Preston, Idaho, has an MRAP despite having only six full-time, sworn officers, an official confirmed to The Washington Post.
In all but one state — Idaho — local law enforcement agencies have received more such vehicles than are in the hands of the National Guard in those locations, according to federal data analyzed and provided by McCaskill’s office. Such equipment transfers come without training, a Defense Department official told McCaskill.
The Ferguson Police Department has received only a small amount through the 1033 program in recent years, including nontactical items such as field packs, first-aid kits, wool blankets and medical supplies.
McCaskill vowed to hold more hearings and develop legislation.
On Monday night, the city of Ferguson announced that a group of residents who are not currently part of local government will review the practices of Ferguson’s police department.
The citizen review board will work with city officials and local law enforcement “in advising and reviewing operations and actions of the police department,” according to a news release distributed Monday by a public relations firm representing the city.