Future amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act could put a stop to what some have called the militarization of police forces and bar leaders from turning to troops to respond to peaceful protests.
Senators from both major political parties are eyeing the 2021 defense policy bill to effect change as unrest continues across the country in the wake of George Floyd's death. Protesters have flooded major cities in recent days after Floyd, a black man, died in police custody last month.
Police units and thousands of National Guard members have been called on to respond to sometimes-violent protests and looting in several cities. President Donald Trump is also considering sending active-duty forces to some states after blasting some governors as "weak" in their response.
But not all lawmakers are happy with how the response is playing out as armored vehicles and troops and cops in riot gear line city streets.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday he'll introduce an amendment into the NDAA that would block Defense Department funding from being used for force against U.S. citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
Kaine said his committee is scheduled to debate the NDAA, which determines how the Pentagon spends its money, next week.
"I never thought we would have to use the National Defense Authorization Act to make clear that the U.S. military shouldn't be used as an agent of force against American citizens," he said. "... We need to put guardrails in place, now."
Peaceful protesters were pushed out of a park near the White House on Monday after Attorney General William Barr ordered law enforcement personnel to clear the area as Trump prepared to walk to a nearby church. Flash-bang explosives and pepper balls were used. Defense officials said Tuesday that Guard members did not carry or employ any nonlethal weapons.
Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate also say they want to stop the military from transferring surplus equipment to police departments. That's a debate that has raged for years, particularly after the 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., when police departments bulked up to meet new threats.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Marine veteran who served in Iraq, said Monday that "our neighborhoods aren't war zones."
"I will push for the House to restrict the program that provides military gear to police departments," Gallego said. "... Militarized police make communities less safe by growing the divide between officers and citizens they are sworn to protect."
In the Senate, Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, said he'll introduce an amendment to the NDAA to discontinue the program that transfers military weapons to local police departments, which is known as 1033.
"It is clear that many police departments are being outfitted as if they are going to war, and it is not working in terms of maintaining the peace," Schatz told The New York Times. "... It's time to recalibrate this program. Just because the Department of Defense has excess weaponry doesn't mean it will be put to good use."
Doug Stafford, chief strategist for Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, tweeted his support for Schatz's plan.
"We've been doing this one [for] years," he said. "Happy to help."
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the U.S. Park Police statement about actions taken against some protestors.