Senate rejects strict limits on military equipment for civilian police

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday rejected a bipartisan proposal to place strict conditions on the transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense to civilian police services, despite outcry over the program amid a wave of protests against racism and police brutality.

The Senate voted 51-49 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have reduced the Pentagon’s surplus military equipment program, nine of the 60 votes needed to pass. Instead, the Senate passed an alternative amendment backed by Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, which adds restrictions to the program, but is less stringent and requires less oversight than the failed amendment.

The failed amendment, sponsored by Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and three other senators including two Republicans, would have banned the transfer of tear gas, stun grenades, grenade launchers, tracked vehicles, weaponry. .50 caliber or greater fire and .50 caliber or greater ammunition, demanded more transparency on all transfers and required the Pentagon to take back the equipment if it was used against protesters legally exercising their First Amendment rights.

Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, addresses the media on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP folder

Speaking in the Senate, Schatz said it was “time to demilitarize the police” and added: “Weapons of war have no place in police services.”

Along with Schatz, the amendment was supported by Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., And Republicans Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The Pentagon’s agenda has come under scrutiny during recent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, with scenes of civilian police wielding military equipment during clashes with protesters.

Oxfam America, one of many progressive groups that lobbied for a change to the Pentagon’s Section 1033 agenda, expressed disappointment, saying the bill passed would offer only “superficial” changes to the agenda. .

The Senate “is effectively giving the Pentagon a blank check to continue spreading its lethal weapons across the country and in our communities,” said Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America.

“The restrictions proposed today will do little to allay the concerns that echo through the streets to the halls of Congress that this mass melee must end.” “

Some libertarian and conservative groups have also supported the Schatz Amendment, including FreedomWorks and R Street.

Senator Inhofe’s alternative amendment, which passed by 90 to 10, would require police forces that receive surplus military equipment to train their officers on “respecting the rights of citizens under the United States Constitution. and the de-escalation of force ”.

Police board an armored vehicle as they patrol downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., June 1, 2020.Jose Carlos Fajardo / Digital First Media / The Mercury News via Getty Images file

“We want to make sure that the wrong types of equipment do not fall into the hands of people who cannot use it properly,” Inhofe told the Senate.

Inhofe’s amendment would ban transfers of grenades other than stun and flash-bang grenades, bayonets and “militarized” tracked combat vehicles and armed drones.

Inhofe said the rejected Schatz-sponsored amendment would have gone too far and made the Pentagon program “virtually impossible to use.”

The House version of the Defense Spending Bill currently has no proposed restrictions on the Pentagon’s agenda.

Yasmine Taeb, senior policy adviser at Demand Progress, a group that pushed for the Pentagon’s program change, accused Democratic House leaders of bowing to pressure from the police unions. She said House Democrats had not come up with their own amendment on the issue, which she said could have put more pressure on the Republican-majority Senate to act.

“Needless to say, seeing the Democratic House leaders and several Democratic members succumb to police pressure in this manner was incredibly disappointing and completely out of step with the demands of the protests sweeping the nation,” she said.

Democratic House leaders did not respond to requests for comment.

The matter will be under discussion when the Senate and House leaders develop the final version of the defense spending bill.

Julie tsirkin contributed.


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