Oklahoma police say McCaskill wrong on extreme militarization example

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, singled out a small sheriff’s department in Oklahoma as an extreme example of the over-militarization of local police forces in a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

“I want to make sure we are clear about how out of control some of this is,” an outraged McCaskill said at the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which has given billions of dollars of excess military equipment to local police over the past two decades. “In Dr. Coburn’s state, the sheriff’s office has one full-time sworn officer. One. They have gotten two MRAPs since 2011.”

The jarring image of one small-town police officer lording over two enormous Pentagon-provided armored vehicles ended up in news reports on the hearing, perfectly illustrating concerns about the 1033 program that have been raised since police in Ferguson, Missouri, quelled protests with the help of an armored vehicle armed with a machine gun last month. President Barack Obama announced he’d be reviewing the federal programs that arm local police to address concerns that they are turning local cops into soldiers.

But it turns out the data the senator was relying on was wrong.

Capt. Kevin Woodward of Payne County’s sheriff’s department told Yahoo News that there are 33 full-time sworn officers in his department, plus another 25 reserve deputies. The department uses one of its two government-provided MRAPs, short for mine resistant ambush protected, as a source of parts for the other when it needs repairs.

It’s so hard to get parts for this thing,” he said.

The sheriff department's website features photos of three of the officers.

McCaskill’s spokeswoman, Sarah Feldman, said the senator relied on the Justice Department’s census of state and local law enforcement agencies from 2008 to determine how many full-time sworn officers each department had. According to that data, Payne County had only one full-time sworn officer in 2008. Woodward said he did not know why the data was wrong.

The Pentagon has recycled more than 600 MRAPs from the military to local police departments, many in small towns, in the past two years through its 1033 program.

Payne County wasn’t the only local police department to become the target of McCaskill’s ire. Jim Prosser, police chief in Lake Angelus, Michigan, said he was annoyed that the senator called out his department for getting 13 military-style rifles from the Pentagon when he is the only full-time sworn officer there.

“So one officer now has 13 military grade assault weapons in their police department,” McCaskill told Alan Estevez, the Defense Department official who oversees the program. “How in the world can anyone say that this program has one lick of oversight if those two things are in existence?” 

Prosser says McCaskill is wrong to characterize the situation as just one officer with 13 rifles. There are 13 sworn officers in the department, but only Prosser is classified as full time because of budget issues. He requested a rifle for each police officer in his department through the 1033 program in 2011. The program does not require that officers be on full-time status to request equipment.

“I don’t know why she decided to throw us under the bus, but she’s incorrect,” Prosser, who’s been fielding constant calls from the media since then, said. 

He said he wished someone from her office had called to ask him about the size of his department.

“I could have cleared this up in 20 seconds,” he said.