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Topics: House of Representatives

Lawmakers cross aisles on demilitarizing police

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A two-term Tea Party Republican known for bucking his party’s leadership has teamed up with a member of the *Congressional Black Caucus on a bill to place new limits on a Pentagon program providing surplus military equipment to local police around the country.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, reached out to Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., over the August recess to offer support for his measure.

Labrador became alarmed after watching news accounts of police in armored vehicles and riot gear pointing guns at protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, and the St. Louis suburb erupted in riots in early August.

“Our country was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing,” Labrador told the Washington Examiner. “The Pentagon’s surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns.”

He said the bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on “protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused.”

After working with Johnson to make some changes to the bill, Labrador is now a co-author and is encouraging other Republicans to support it.

“Americans across the political spectrum are troubled by this issue, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have strong bipartisan support,” he said.

Nightly images in mid-to-late August of police using military-style tactics in efforts to control protests and looting alarmed advocates for greater civil liberties on the Right and Left.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a leading critic of the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance program, was so concerned about the scenes that he penned an op-ed for Time magazine arguing that the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson “resemble war more than traditional police action.”

President Obama has since issued an internal administration review of the Defense Department’s so-called 1033 program, which has transferred billions of dollars' worth of military equipment to state and local law enforcement since 1990.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs a Senate subcommittee on federal financial and contracting oversight, has announced hearings about the militarization of local police when Congress returns.

Even before the Ferguson unrest, Johnson was scrutinizing the channel of military weapons and supply program to local police and writing legislation to try to stop it.

Just before Congress left for its August recess, Johnson circulated a letter to his House colleagues about his interest in reining in the program. It got very few “bites,” he said, until Ferguson, when interest exploded.

“I was watching TV and the news reports when I saw these big hulking vehicles with people coming out of gun turrets and pointing their weapons at the public,” he said. “…[I came] to find out, that was equipment the Ferguson police had attained under the 1033 program.”

Johnson’s bill would bar the Defense Logistics Agency from transferring certain military-grade weaponry to local police, including automatic weapons that are .50-caliber or larger; tanks, armored vehicles and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; armored drones; rocket-fired grenades; and silencers.

After discovering that many state and local police departments have lost scores of weapons from the program, Johnson included a provision that would ban police departments from receiving additional 1033 supplies if they could not provide an accurate accounting of what they already have.

The original version included a provision banning the transfer of all aircraft, but Johnson said he altered it after Republicans pointed out that helicopters and planes help local police with rescues and firefighting. The new language prohibits the transfer of aircraft outfitted with more military-grade gear and systems.

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