During his time in the Senate, Pat Toomey has rarely made an issue of police militarization and law enforcement responses to terrorism.
Which is what makes his current push to arm the police so puzzling.
In a letter to the White House last week, Toomey urged the president to rescind an executive order that blocked transfers of surplus high-caliber military equipment to local law enforcement.
“You have continued to restrict local police access to armored vehicles, explosives, protective helmets, and other lifesaving, federal equipment,” Toomey wrote to Obama. “Specifically, you have restricted local police departments from using federal funds for these items.”
Toomey cited the BearCat vehicle that saved lives while the Orlando attacker was taking hostages inside the nightclub in order to bolster his argument that police departments need access to this type of equipment.
The letter has led to accusations from his political opponents of political posturing at best and at worst attempting to take advantage of the shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando to get re-elected.
It doesn’t help that Toomey—who is positioning himself as a security hawk—once voted for an amendment that would have scrapped the very program he claims to be championing.
But that was before he was in the race of his career.
The Pennsylvania Republican and former chairman of the conservative Club for Growth rode the 2010 wave of conservatives elected to Congress while largely billing himself as a fiscal and budget hawk.
While in some areas he has sought to strike the middle ground—such as with gun control—Toomey has recently taken a harder line and tone on law and order. In March, he introduced a bill, the Lifesaving Gear for Police Act, that would fully reinstate the program that allowed the military to give their surplus weaponry to police departments.
President Obama signed an executive order last May to limit the so-called 1033 program—which allows the Department of Defense to liquidate its surplus military equipment and transfer it to local law enforcement—after the shooting death of a young black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited clashes between police and protesters.
At the time, police were accused of utilizing weaponry that was more suited for the streets of a war zone than of a U.S. suburb.
In his letter, Toomey argued that after Orlando, the program should be fully reinstated, and that items such as bayonets and weaponized aircraft should be sent to local police units with few restrictions.
Policy scholars who have studied the 1033 program, which was launched in 1996, are baffled by Toomey’s letter.
One, who requested anonymity, said the items Toomey calls “lifesaving”—tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, and more—are weapons of war not meant to be utilized for policing. The scholar said Toomey and his staff showed a lack of discipline and likely did not read Obama’s executive order.
Others took issue with the policy itself, arguing that there are reasonable constraints to the 1033 program.
“Legitimate law enforcement and policing shouldn’t involve grenade launchers, tank-like-tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, bayonets, or other types of identifiably military equipment,” Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of Open the Books, the world’s largest private repository of government spending, told The Daily Beast.
Orlando’s police chief agrees with Andrzejewski. Despite citing the nightclub massacre as an example, Chief John Mina doesn’t want what Toomey is selling.
Orlando’s police department purchased the BearCat in 2014 using its own money. Mina has been skeptical about acquiring military surplus equipment, specifically military-style vehicles, telling the Orlando Sentinel: “we have utilized grants and other funding to purchase most of our SWAT gear [but] none under the 1033 program.”
Toomey’s letter also mentions explosives used by police during the Orlando massacre to rescue hostages. But according to data provided to The Daily Beast by Open the Books, the Orlando Police Department never acquired explosives through the 1033 program.
The new push also signals a change in Toomey’s position on the program, which he opposed more than a decade ago. In 2000, as a member of the House of Representatives, he voted for an amendment that would have eliminated the 1033 program entirely, if passed.
A Toomey spokeswoman said her boss was just changing with the times.
“In 2000, the war on terrorism had not yet been brought to our shores,” Toomey’s communications director E.R. Anderson told The Daily Beast. “What was right in 2000 is not right for the challenges we face today.”
Asked by The Daily Beast whether Toomey believes there are any merits to regulating which pieces of equipment should be transferred to local law enforcement, Anderson conceded that items such as bayonets—which have the sole purpose of bleeding out an enemy to death and are banned under the Obama order—should not be used by U.S. police forces.
In other words, the bill Toomey is proposing is not exactly in line with what the senator believes either.
Still, Toomey is already using the issue on the campaign trail. In Pittsburgh last week, he called on his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, to indicate where she stands on the Lifesaving Gear for Police Act.
McGinty told The Daily Beast that she supports the 1033 program, but is in favor of reasonable bans on items such as bayonets and grenade launchers—essentially the same position that Toomey holds. She slammed her opponent for political opportunism—billing himself as a law-and-order conservative while voting against increased funding for police programs.
“Cops can only buy the equipment they have the resources to pay for,” McGinty said. “Pat Toomey is full of baloney on this issue.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board backed up McGinty in a blistering op-ed last Thursday, accusing Toomey of “pandering for the support of law enforcement and their families.”
Policy experts familiar with the program told The Daily Beast that the 1033 program is not as cut-and-dry as is being portrayed by the candidates.
“The executive order was very narrow and targeted to allow the continued transfer of most military surplus items. But, it’s now a matter of public debate as to whether or not the order fell short of restricting enough war gear,” said Andrzejewski.
Speaking off the record, others say that Obama’s executive order does very little to cut or even limit the 1033 program at all.
One scholar told The Daily Beast that the Obama order and Toomey bill have negligible effects on what items police officers have access to, and that both men are politicizing the issue for their own personal gain. Obama sought to push back against increased police militarization in light of the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore; while Toomey, a vulnerable senator, is seeking to appear “tough on crime” in light of recent tragedies.
“Both of those work in tandem or a vacuum,” the scholar said, arguing that both have politicized the police militarization issue. “Both do absolutely nothing. They won’t move the needle one way or another.”
While most of the experts believe that the 1033 program is useful and should stay in place, it could not have prevented the Orlando terror attack unless heavily armed police officers were staged on every street corner.
“That’s not the kind of state we want to live in,” one 1033 expert said.
Toomey, McGinty and Obama apparently agree, despite the political back-and-forth over the issue in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. But the latter two contend that they are the only ones who have been straightforward about where they stand.