US police forces that use military equipment earmarked for counter-terrorism to handle public order disturbances instead could be forced to repay millions of dollars in grants, under a review revealed during the first congressional hearings into this summer’s riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Department of Justice and the White House were already investigating whether to limit federal programs that have showered local law enforcement agencies with armoured vehicles and military-style equipment in recent years.
But the Department of Homeland Security, one of three US agencies primarily responsible for providing the equipment, said it was now considering whether to demand that its grants be repaid if police are found to have broken a little-known rule prohibiting its use in riot suppression.
“We have a range of remedies should [the DOJ] find non-compliance, including recoupment of funds,” Brian Kamoie of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Kentucky senator Rand Paul during a hearing of the Senate homeland security committee.
Paul said he was horrified by the “thoroughly un-American” policing tactics seen in Ferguson and demanded an immediate end to a similar Pentagon program, called 1033, that has provided 12,000 bayonets, 5,200 humvees and 617 mine-resistant armoured vehicles (MRAPs) to civilian forces across the US.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said committee investigators had found there were now more MRAPs in the hands of local police forces than the national guard and that 36% of all surplus equipment received direct from the military was brand new or unused.
“What in the world are we doing buying stuff that is not used,” asked McCaskill. “I want to make sure we are clear about how out of control this is.”
A list of smaller police departments receiving MRAPs under the 1033 programme disclosed by committee staff claimed one Oklahoma county sheriff’s department with just one full-time sworn officer had received two of the 18-tonne vehicles alone.
Pentagon officials testifying at the hearing acknowledged there were few centralised controls on how its programme operates, saying it was down to states to say what equipment they needed.
“It’s not for the army to judge local law enforcement,” said Alan Estevez, a principal deputy under-secretary at the Department of Defense, when asked how it vetted requests. “We don’t have the expertise.”
Karol Mason, assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, said much of the $4.5bn it has spent since 2005 providing military-grade equipment to police, also came with “very little discretion” to determine whether it was always appropriate.