WASHINGTON – If Congress reconsiders what types of military hardware can be given to local law enforcement agencies, one Upstate congressman said Monday he has changed his view and would vote to curtail the surplus program.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, announced on his Facebook page Monday morning – after several days of clashes in Missouri between heavily armed police and protesters – that he regrets voting in June against an amendment that would have prevented police from obtaining the most lethal war fighting equipment from the Pentagon.
"I am now of the position that providing the kind of surplus military items, like Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, to local and state law enforcement units is wrong," Duncan wrote.
The House voted overwhelmingly against a proposal from Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., that would have eliminated aircraft, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and other items from the Pentagon program that allows local police and sheriffs to get equipment the military no longer needs. Since it started in 1997, the program has provided $5.1 billion of equipment to local law enforcement agencies around the country, usually at little or no cost.
Grayson's amendment – which would not have blocked the transfer of assault rifles – was defeated 62-355. Supporters argued the program is a cost-effective way to improve public safety.
But since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over how law enforcement cracked down on protesters upset about a police shooting, there has been increasing concern from both ends of the political spectrum that local law enforcement has become too militarized. Duncan, a conservative, moved closer to the libertarian view in Congress that police should not resemble soldiers.
"Our police should be able to protect themselves as well as us, the average citizen, in doing their jobs," Duncan wrote. "It is one thing to have protection, though, and completely another to have the kind of overkill that a MRAP provides."
Law enforcement agencies in South Carolina have obtained 14 MRAPs in the past two years, according to information from the Defense Logistics Agency compiled by the Detroit Free Press.
One of those is in Newberry County, part of which is in Duncan's district. Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said the department applied for an armored Humvee, not an MRAP. He said a recent standoff with a heavily armed man prompted the agency to apply for the vehicle.
"We did not have anything to protect us from him," Foster said Monday.
They received the MRAP one year ago, and the only cost to the department was the time to go pick it up.
The Department of Defense said the MRAP has a value of $658,000. Foster said it is parked in a garage and has no weapons on it.
"It's a defensive piece of equipment, not a weapon," Foster said. "It never entered in my wildest dreams to use this as an offensive tool. It's always something to protect police officers and the public."
Another Upstate congressman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, also voted against curtailing the surplus program in June and said Monday he has no regrets.
"I have seen first hand how responsible state and local law enforcement officials have used these transfers to save money and protect the public," Gowdy said through a spokeswoman.
In terms of the value of the surplus gear obtained from the Pentagon, South Carolina ranks 8th in the country, with $49.3 million worth of equipment transferred to the state since 2006.
Duncan said the argument that the surplus program is cost-efficient for local law enforcement clouded his judgment on what kind of equipment they were getting. He said based on requests from first responders, he supports more medical and safety equipment, like body armor.
"We should question our local officials - our sheriffs, our chiefs of police and our city, county and state officials, about their desire for, need for and acquisition of this surplus military equipment," he wrote.