How Police Unions Stopped Congress From 'Militarization' Reform

Why even Rand Paul isn't talking as much about cops with army gear.

Photograph by Getty Images

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul took his time responding to Monday's events in Ferguson, Missouri. After the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, Paul's office politely rebuffed requests for an immediate reaction. He concentrated on an op-ed, published in Time magazine.

"I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing," wrote Paul. "I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences... I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system." 

Not mentioned, apart from an aside about an infamous case of police misconduct in Georgia, was the subject of Paul's first Ferguson op-ed, also published in Time. "We must demilitarize the police," wrote Paul in August, as he listed the ways that local police departments obtained and misused surplus military equipment. "The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. 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."

Three months later, as Evan McMorris-Santoro reports, the anti-"militarization" is nowhere. Even by Washington's amnesiac standards, the efforts to reform the 1033 program that makes military gear available to police departments faded absurdly fast. An Aug. 31 Politico story reported on lawmakers' optimism that Ferguson "actually will lead to some policy changes." One week later, Politico published a report about how "substantive action on the federal level is an uphill battle," and that lobbyists for the cops were likely to save the military gear program.

So they did. While the National Sheriffs Association declined comment, the Fraternal Order of Police made executive director Jim Pasco available to talk about how the skeptics—like Paul—were defeated.

"Nothing much has happened except that some members of Congress had kneejerk reactions to the optics of Ferguson or the rhetoric of Ferguson," said Pasco. "They thought there was something problematic about the equipment they saw on the streets. In the intervening period, some of them have come to see that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not what the equipment looks like, it’s what its utility is."

According to Pasco, FOP members reached out to "maybe 80 percent of senators and half the House." Since militarization was at the greatest risk in the Democratic Senate, the disparity made sense. As McMorris-Santoro reported, the departing Senate's blockade on Republican amendments made it impossible for Paul to attach anything to a passable bill. And the clock's basically run out for reform. A new Congress is coming in, but the FOP doesn't see it as particularly likely to dismantle 1033.

"I'm not, for example, optimistic about Rand Paul or whasisname from Georgia—Rep. Hank Johnson, the real scholar," said Pasco. (Johnson, a Democrat from the Atlanta area, infamously asked a witness in the House Armed Services Committee if the island of Guam might one day capsize.) "We wouldn’t be talking about Ferguson if it wasn’t for the fact that a white police officer shot a young black man, but a lot of people didn’t want to jump on that specifically. They jumped on this militarization issue because it made them look like being in the mix on Ferguson without being in the mix on Ferguson. Rather than be proponents of good public policy, they were practicing that tactic of political opportunism." 

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