Republicans Are Blocking The Only Congressional Response To Ferguson

Republicans Are Blocking The Only Congressional Response To Ferguson

WASHINGTON -- The only Congressional response to this summer's brutal police crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri appears to be dead, with the House GOP leadership blocking a vote on a bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).

The legislation seeks to curb controversial transfers of military weapons and equipment to local police forces. It would ban the Pentagon from granting local police free automatic weapons, armored vehicles, weaponized drones, combat helicopters, grenades, silencers, sound cannons and other equipment, although police could still purchase such gear with local budgets or through grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

It would also impose more stringent safeguards to account for the equipment that does get transferred. Collectively, more than $4 billion in military weaponry and equipment has been distributed to police forces across the U.S. since the inception of the initiative, known as the 1033 Program.

The bill is Johnson's baby, crafted prior to the protests in Ferguson but introduced in September after Johnson courted backing from Labrador and other Republicans, including Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.).

In June, the House shot down similar legislation introduced by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) by a vote of 355 to 62. But Grayson's amendment had been subject to limited debate in which opponents insisted that police never misuse their Pentagon gear.

"To just outright ban the usage of that equipment would devastate local law enforcement agencies across the nation," Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) said on the House floor in June. "This is absolutely ludicrous, to think the equipment that's utilized by law enforcement is utilized for any reason other than public safety."

"It's not misused," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) at the time. "The law enforcement agencies in the Northeast that benefit from this equipment have used it to make sure that all of our citizens are protected. And not only in the Northeast."

In March, Johnson wrote an op-ed for USA Today about the issue that garnered little fanfare. But public attitudes on police militarization changed dramatically in August, after the widespread use of tear gas, armored vehicles and rubber bullets to target Ferguson citizens protesting the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

Public outrage at images from Ferguson that many compared to a military occupation gave Johnson some hope that his bill might see action in the final months of 2014. But even with a few Republicans among the bill's 45 co-sponsors, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has refused to give the demilitarization bill a committee vote. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, has prevented the bill from coming to the House floor.

Johnson's office told HuffPost that the congressman plans to reintroduce the bill next year, but acknowledged that its prospects are limited in the wake of the GOP's gains in the November midterm elections. House Republicans awarded a host of key chairmanships to national security hawks after the midterms, dealing a blow to the party's libertarian wing.

"He's going to continue working on this," Andy Phelan, a spokesman for Johnson, told HuffPost. "But it's really now an education campaign."

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