In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that were catalyzed by the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Congress has called hearings to review the federal programs that provide local police with military weapons and other equipment. At a hearing yesterday, a Department of Homeland Security official attempted to defend the grants his agency gives to local police departments by invoking the Boston Marathon bombing. Instead, he ended up looking like an idiot. According to The New York Times (emphasis added):
“Grant funds provided to Massachusetts and to Boston saved lives and restored and ensured public safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing,” Brian E. Kamoie, a senior Homeland Security grant administrator, told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing on Tuesday about equipment given to local police departments. His testimony focused heavily on Boston before even mentioning the clashes, and the show of heavily armed officers in Ferguson that prompted the hearing.
Mr. Kamoie, from Homeland Security, noted that his agency’s grants did not pay for weapons. He said infrared, helicopter-mounted surveillance gear bought with federal grants was instrumental in locating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston bombing.
[Senator Tom] Coburn corrected him. Mr. Tsarnaev was discovered not by the police but by a Watertown, Mass., resident named Dave Henneberry who — once the police allowed people to leave their homes — walked outside and noticed a pool of blood in his boat parked in his backyard. Mr. Coburn presented an article from The Boston Globe recounting the events.
Mr. Kamoie seemed surprised. He said his colleagues had credited the helicopter camera. “I look forward to reading that article,” he said.
Not only did this DHS official get his facts about the Tsarnaev manhunt embarrassingly wrong, his testimony indicates that many people within the agency hold the same false beliefs.
As Kade Crockford, an expert on privacy and surveillance issues with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, put it: "Inside DHS, there is a mythology that federally funded spy gear helped cops locate Tsarnaev in the boat, when it was actually a random dude."
The reality is that the police didn't "ensure public safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing" as Kamoie suggests. During the manhunt, the police got into a shootout with the two Tsarnaev brothers in which they recklessly fired hundreds of rounds in a populated area. Bullets perforated numerous homes, nearly hitting innocent people. Police even shot two of their fellow officers, nearly killing one of them. Later, when the police cornered the younger Tsarnaev in the boat, they opened fire on him again for no apparent reason (he was unarmed and likely bleeding to death from his injuries), hitting more homes with gunfire and endangering innocent lives again. It's only by sheer luck that no one else was hurt.
If these bureaucrats at DHS are so clueless that they can't even get right the basic facts about important national events that they use as the justification for their jobs, there's no way in hell they should be trusted to make decisions about the sorts of equipment the police in our communities are armed with. It's clear that the national dialogue about the militarization of police that Ferguson has spurred is long overdue.