Fraternal Order of Police pushing back on police 'militarization' bill

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: May 11, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Fraternal Order of Police, the world's largest organization of law enforcement officers, is objecting to parts of Sen. Claire McCaskill's bill coordinating federal programs on the use of surplus military equipment and other aid to local police departments.

McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced her bill last week as an answer to police "militarization" claims made in the response to unrest in Ferguson last summer after the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, is expected to introduce a bill similar to McCaskill's in the House this week.

The FOP's Executive Director National President Chuck Canterbury wrote McCaskill last week that the organization supported McCaskill's calls for more training for SWAT teams and law-enforcement command staff, particularly in crowd-control.

But Canterbury said his organization opposed attempts to restrict the equipment used by local police called for in the legislation, saying those decisions were best left to local authorities. His letter also says that McCaskill's bill could lead to restricting the use of body armor and "other bullet-resistant equipment" by local police officers.

"The issue we need to address is not one of equipment or availability or accountability of Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) teams, but one of leadership," the FOP's Canterbury wrote to McCaskill. "Officers with special equipment and dynamic entry teams do not dispatch themselves; their deployment and use is a decision made by law enforcement leadership. Restricting access to equipment - which may say lives - because law enforcement leadership may not make good decisions does not really address the issue."

A McCaskill spokesman said Monday the bill isn't intended to restrict the use of body armor, and that it merely categorizes such equipment under disparate federal programs. But McCaskill aides said she will include in the bill language clearly stating that no such restrictions on body armor exists.

"The national organization that represents SWAT teams would never endorse a bill that in any way restricts body armor - and neither would Claire," said McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard, referring to the support of the National Tactical Officers Association.

McCaskill's and Clay's legislation would require more formalized training in the use of surplus military and other federal equipment obtained by local police agencies, which Canterbury says the FOP supports. It seeks to prevent the federal government from giving police departments one type of heavy mine-resistant armored vehicle, known as an MRAP, while allowing the transfer of other kinds of armored vehicles. 

The measure directs that 5 percent of a top Justice Department grant program go toward police body cameras, dashboard cameras, gun cameras and similar technology.

Additionally, the measure would set minimum manpower requirements - 17-member SWAT teams in departments of at least 35 officers - in departments that receive federal aid.

McCaskill argued her bill should not be considered as handing down mandates because it applies only to programs involving federal aid. The 5 percent of federal grants aimed toward body cameras and other technology is a federal guideline on grant-spending decisions, not one imposed department-by-department, her aides said Monday.  

But Canterbury's letter argues that the bill, by setting minimum sizes for SWAT teams and the departments employing them, and other measures in McCaskill's bill, "unfairly discriminates against smaller, more rural departments which often have a greater need for equipment and other support because they lack resources."

Canterbury writes that  "the list of prohibited and restricted items" in the legislation is "far too broad," and that it could counter an "historic" November agreement in which the FOP and the Justice Department Community Oriented Policing Services office endorsed the mandatory use of body armor on cops and seat belts for all law enforcement officers.

McCaskill aides said Monday that that was not the intention, and the bill would clarify that.

The FOP's questions point out the complexity of addressing an issue that flared up dramatically in the police response to the aftermath of the shooting, in which stores were looted and burned and demonstrations, and police responded in body armor and armored vehicles, although none of the controversial MRAPs - mine-resistant vehicles designed for war zones - were used.

McCaskill's legislation is backed by the police chiefs of St. Louis County, the city of  St. Louis, and Kansas City, as well as the National Tactical Officers Association.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar declined an interview request, but his office issued this statement in support of the legislation:  "Every day, law enforcement officers walk a fine line keeping our communities safe.  We must maintain the trust of our communities while being aware of and prepared for the dangers we may face. Senator McCaskill understands that delicate balance."

Belmar said that McCaskill's bill ensures that police "will continue to have access to life-saving equipment, but it brings more public awareness to these programs, and that transparency is essential to building and maintaining trust."

Contributing: Christine Byers. 


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