Senate hearing on police militarization reveals DHS is completely out of touch with reality

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Apparently the people responsible for arming our local police forces like small militaries have no idea what’s going on under their noses, and invent magical fairytales about how the vehicles and surveillance equipment their grant funds buy for police are actually used.

Senate hearing on police militarization reveals DHS is completely out of touch with reality

Yesterday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held hearings about police militarization, a largely federally-funded problem. The fact that much of the equipment—weapons, trucks, and surveillance toys—landing in the hands of our local police comes from grants or gifts bestowed by the feds wasn’t lost on the senators in attendance. In the wake of Ferguson, most of the country knows about this problem.

But there were a couple of shocking revelations at the hearing, among them that officials within the Department of Homeland Security, one of the agencies responsible for the paramilitarization of our police forces in the post-9/11 era, have a very tenuous grasp on basic facts central to their jobs.

Brian E. Kamoie, a senior official at DHS responsible for overseeing grant programs to state and local police, bragged to senators that absent help from his agency, police in Massachusetts might not have found Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The New York Times reports:

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.

There’s just one problem: that’s totally false! As most people in the country—and possibly even the world—know, the young Tsarnaev was finally found after police called off martial law, and a citizen went outside to smoke a cigarette. Thankfully, Senator Coburn didn’t hesitate to state this obvious fact for the record. Again, the Times:

Mr. 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.

What did Mr. Kamoie, the DHS official responsible for providing surveillance equipment and bear cat armored trucks to state and local police, have to say for himself after this horrifically embarrassing blunder?

Mr. Kamoie seemed surprised. He said his colleagues had credited the helicopter camera. “I look forward to reading that article,” he said.

“His colleagues had credited the helicopter camera.” Isn’t that nice. A convenient mythology within DHS says that surveillance equipment purchased with their grant money was instrumental in finding an accused terrorist, when nothing could be further from the truth.

But that’s not all. DHS’ Kamoie also told his senate overseers that “Grant funds provided to Massachusetts and to Boston saved lives and restored and ensured public safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.” The first part of that sentence is likely true; emergency management training funds DHS provided to the Metro Boston region enabled hospitals and first responders to prepare for a mass casualty event, and doing so likely saved lives. But the second part of that sentence is really hard to swallow.

Police “ensured public safety in the aftermath of the bombing”? By wildly firing hundreds of rounds into a boat in a civilian neighborhood? By shooting bullets into homes during a fire-fight on a quiet residential street, injuring multiple police officers in the process, and killing one? By flooding east Watertown with militarized cops, so that the scent that could have led them to Tsarnaev, who was hiding under their noses for nearly 24 hours, would be completely trampled? By riding around in military trucks and so-called ‘bear cats’, and hauling totally innocent people out of their homes for questioning?

The police did not find Tsarnaev, full stop. None of their militarized force or surveillance prowess helped one iota. Once he was located, by a regular citizen, police officers nearly killed the remaining known witness to one of the state’s most serious crimes in history, by riddling the boat he was hiding in with hundreds of bullets. If anything, the declaration of what amounted to martial law and the extreme show of force in Watertown illustrated that might isn’t right in the domestic policing context. Sometimes less is more.

But perhaps we shouldn’t expect DHS officials to understand that, given their propensity to invent out of whole cloth heroic stories justifying their massive expansion of the surveillance state.

If anything, Boston should serve as a lesson that gumshoe detective work and community policing—not mass surveillance and overwhelming firepower—are what we need to keep our communities safe. It’s not terribly surprising that DHS officials responsible for the trickle down of the national security state to the local level refuse to accept that. But it’s shocking that they are so disconnected from reality that they invent entire mythologies about extremely significant national events to justify our descent into what increasingly resembles an authoritarian police state.

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