Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon lifted a curfew in Ferguson today, hours after deploying the Missouri National Guard to try to tamp down the civic unrest that has lasted for over a week now in the aftermath of an unarmed black teenager being killed by a white police officer.
The tensions have persisted in Ferguson even after the governor turned to the State Highway Patrol last Thursday to oversee crowd control. That move came after the local police were heavily criticized for their heavy-handed tactics, including the use of tear gas, military-style vehicles, assault rifles and smoke bombs.
The use of such vehicles has led to a public discussion about police forces around the country having bulked up on military equipment provided by the federal government via the Department of Defense, particularly after 9/11.
Today Pinellas County Congressman David Jolly told CL that he's working on legislation that would address some of the concerns recently expressed about the issue. He says the bill would make sure that local law enforcement agencies have the certifications required to operate it. Jolly says it's been in the works since long before the situation involving the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson occurred. "We're examining some type of program to make sure that local enforcement that receive surplus DOD equipment actually has personnel trained and licensed to operate it," he said.
"I think the over militarization of our local police forces is leading to higher tensions," said Tampa area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor. "When police officers are shooting tear gas at their own residents that they're there to protect — and protect their First Amendment rights — things have gotten entirely out of hand," she said referring to the actions that have occurred in Ferguson over the past week.
For his part, Jolly says that the situation in Ferguson "is an important one," but he stresses caution. "I think both sides need to be patient and let the justice system work its process, both for the young man as well as the police officer."
Jolly said his legislation would be ready to roll out with the next couple of months. But lawmakers had the chance to slow down the militarization of local police departments back in June, when Representative Alan Grayson proposed
an amendment that would have stopped the so-called '1033 program' launched in 1997 that has provided billions of dollars in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The proposal went down to defeat on a 355-62 vote;
Castor was amongst those 62 members of Congress supporting it (Jolly opposed).
The libertarian wing of the Republican Party has been outspoken in the past week about the use of such military equipment being used by local police forces, none bigger than their standard bearer in Congress these days, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. In a much-talked-about essay on Time.com
last week, Paul wrote," Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement."
"The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm," Paul wrote later in the essay. "It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it."
But Congressman Jolly respectfully disagrees with his Kentucky colleague. "The important thing about law enforcement is that it's exercised in a way that respects individuals' due process," he said on Monday. "The tools of law enforcement are never the issue."
When this issue came up last week, several national commentators referenced the excessive build-up in Tampa for the 2012 Republican National Convention as another example of "overkill" when it came to deploying a quasi-military-like setting in an urban environment. Certainly Kathy Castor thinks so.
"Downtown Tampa was over-militarized," she said on Monday. "I thought they went too far. They shut down downtown. You could not get to local restaurants. I was disappointed. We felt safe, but walking around Charlotte (the host of the DNC a week later) shortly after that it was obvious that you did not need to over-militarize your downtown area."