Capitol Hill's response to the Darren Wilson decision may be limited to empathy
As the fires of unrest smolder in Ferguson, Mo., some members of Congress expressed their solidarity with the protesters of the Michael Brown grand jury verdict sparring police officer Darren Wilson from charges connected to the August 9 shooting.
“I know this [is] hard,” tweeted Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights hero, on Monday. “I know this is difficult. Do not succumb to the temptations of violence. There is a more powerful way.”
“Only love can overcome hate,” he added. “Only nonviolence can overcome violence.”
But the official response from Capitol Hill may not amount to much more than empathy, as the Republican leaders who control both chambers of Congress next year appear unlikely to support efforts reigning in police departments from obtaining Pentagon gear like mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. Such bills aren’t focused on reducing incidents like the Brown shooting but the danger in the aftermath, in which protesters are confronted by a threatened police force with military-grade weapons and technology.
After the Brown shooting, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri led hearings diving into the lack of police training with such weapons and if police departments should have to purchase body cameras before obtaining military equipment. In September, McCaskill announced some of the results of her investigation, finding that over a third of the supposedly “excess” military equipment provided to police departments was barely used, if at all. She also found police departments armed for Iraq-level warfare, with 49 of 50 states having more MRAP vehicles than their state’s National Guard. McCaskill recently told BuzzFeed that she would continue her efforts to investigate how the police are trained, but stopped short of calling to bar the departments from receiving military equipment in the first place.
“We learned we have no oversight and the people that are doing these programs aren’t even talking to one another and there hasn’t been any rhyme or reason to who’s received this equipment, whether or not they’ve been trained, and how they are utilizing it,” she told BuzzFeed. “So we’re now looking more at an oversight function of those issues. I’ve visited with other senators who are interested, including some of my Republican colleagues, and we’re going to try and sit down between now and the first of the year and see if we can come up with some guidelines.”
Her Democratic colleagues in the House appear to be pretty glum about the prospects for reforming how the police obtain Pentagon equipment.
A spokesman for Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, who plans on reintroducing his bill to limit police militarization next session, sees the effort as “really an education campaign” due to opposition from Republican leadership, according to the Huffington Post. But Democrats are also divided if there should be an outright ban on transfer of this equipment or if there should simply be more stringent requirements and training for officers who will use it.
Some libertarian-minded Republicans have also joined the call to demilitarize the police, including Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who wrote in a TIME op-ed less than a week after the Brown shooting that “there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.” On Tuesday, Paul’s office confirmed that he will introduce his own bill addressing police militarization next year. He’s working with retiring Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn on the legislation and will talk to other senators “over the coming months” to garner support, according to an aide.