Senate rejects strict limits on military gear for civilian police

Progressive groups pushed for change after some police used military gear during Black Lives Matter protests, including tracked vehicles and stun grenades.
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd during the coronavirus pandemic in Riverside
Police with armored vehicles advance on demonstrators who refused to disperse after curfew during a protest in Riverside, California on June 1, 2020.Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

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By Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday rejected a bipartisan proposal to impose strict conditions on the transfer of Defense Department military gear to civilian police departments, despite an 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 scaled back the Pentagon’s surplus military equipment program, nine short of the 60 votes needed to pass. Instead, the Senate adopted an alternative amendment backed by Republican Sen. 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 Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and three other senators including two Republicans, would have barred the transfer of tear gas, stun grenades, grenade launchers, tracked vehicles, firearms of .50 caliber or higher and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, required more transparency on all transfers and obliged the Pentagon to take back the gear if it was used against protesters lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks to the media on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP file

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

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

The Pentagon program has come under renewed scrutiny during recent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, with scenes of civilian police wielding military gear in clashes with demonstrators.

Oxfam America, one of a number of progressive groups that pressed for a change to the Pentagon’s Section 1033 program, expressed disappointment, saying the bill that was adopted would offer only “superficial” changes to the program.

The Senate is “effectively handing the Pentagon a blank check to continue to spread its deadly hand-me-down weapons around the country and into our communities,” said Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America.

“Today’s proposed restrictions will do little to ease the concerns that are resounding from the streets to the halls of Congress that this free-for-all must end."

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

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

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

“We want to make sure the wrong kinds of equipment doesn’t get into the hands of people who cannot properly use it,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor.

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

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

The House version of the defense spending bill currently has no proposed restrictions on the Pentagon program.

Yasmine Taeb, senior policy counsel with Demand Progress, a group that pushed for changing the Pentagon program, accused the Democratic leadership in the House of bowing to lobbying pressure from police unions. She said the House Democrats failed to propose their own amendment on the issue, which she said might have put more pressure on the Republican-majority Senate to act.

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

House Democratic leaders did not respond to requests for comment.

The issue will be up for discussion when Senate and House leaders hammer out the final version of the defense spending bill.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.