WASHINGTON -- Missouri congressmen will meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday to discuss possible changes to a Pentagon program that provides surplus military weapons to police departments.
Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D) and Lacy Clay (D), who represents Ferguson, will discuss with Hagel the so-called "1033 program," which since launching in 1997 has provided billions of dollars in military equipment at no charge to local law enforcement agencies around the country. The effects of the program have been on full display this month in Ferguson, Missouri, where police have responded to mostly peaceful protests over the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown with a stunning display of force involving armored vehicles, tear gas, assault rifles and smoke bombs.
Clay spokesman Steven Engelhardt said the daily images of militarized police in the St. Louis suburb have raised "obvious" concerns about how the Pentagon program is administered.
"Surplus military equipment being allocated to local law enforcement with good intentions, but not nearly enough training," Engelhardt said in an email. "Much evidence of just that in Ferguson."
A Defense Department official said Hagel has been getting briefed on the program over the past two days to get a better handle on how it works.
"I haven't heard the Secretary come down one way or another, either for or against, this congressionally mandated program. ... He is asking for more information to be better informed on this so he can figure out if there needs to be a review," said the official. "At this time, no formal review is underway."
The effects of the Pentagon initiative have been documented for years, but many lawmakers don’t know much about it. One House Democratic aide speculated that the lack of lobbying around the program has made it easier for members of Congress to simply defer to their local police on what should happen.
Some lawmakers have attempted to rein in the program, with little success. The House overwhelmingly voted in June to block legislation by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) that would have stopped the program. Last week, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) announced plans to file legislation to scale it back, though it's unclear whether his effort will go anywhere.
President Barack Obama weighed in on the debate on Monday, saying "it's probably useful" to revisit the program's funding to ensure that police departments are getting military gear they actually need.
"There’s a big difference between our military and local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said. "That would be contrary to our traditions."