Defense Bills Targeted to Cut Off Military Gear to Police Forces

A Pentagon initiative that has transferred more than $7 billion in excess military equipment to U.S. police departments is in congressional cross-hairs as law enforcement officers in riot gear have used rubber bullets, flash-bang devices, and pepper spray to disperse nationwide protests over the death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis police custody.

Lawmakers from both parties are targeting the fiscal 2021 defense authorization measure which sets military policy, including provisions concerning the so-called 1033 program to transfer of military equipment. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that possible restrictions to transferring military equipment may come up as part of deliberations over the defense bill.

“There has long been concern about the militarization of the law enforcement and the message that sends to the population that it is supposed to serve,” Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “Certainly, selling excess military equipment to domestic law enforcement raises concerns about that, and that is something that we absolutely will be talking about.”

Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images
A military police Humvee blocks the street in downtown Washington, D.C. on June 1 as demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Weapons Designed for Combat

Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a former Marine and member of the House Armed Services panel, said he would advance an effort to restrict the surplus program as part of the defense authorization measure. The House hasn’t yet set a schedule for the defense authorization deliberations, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland indicated the panel would write the bill at the end of June.

“Local law enforcement officers shouldn’t be confronting civilians with weapons designed for combat,” Gallego said in a statement. “A militarized police force makes our communities less safe and heightens the growing divide between police officers and the citizens that they are sworn to protect.”

Gallego is a co-sponsor with Rep. Hank Johnson ( D-Ga.) of the bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1714). The bill would bar the transfer of military weapons and equipment that are deemed unnecessary or inappropriate for local policing. Prohibited items would include grenades, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), armored or weaponized drones, combat configured aircraft, silencers, and long range acoustic devices.

“Rather than improving safety, the militarization of police forces terrorizes communities—particularly lower-income populations and people of color—and increases the risk of excessive force,” a coalition of organizations including the Human Rights Watch wrote In support of the legislation last year.

In the Senate, Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who has long pressed to restrict the transfer of military grade equipment to police, has support from Kentucky Republican Rand Paulto seek a change to the program as part of the defense authorization bill. The two aren’t members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and would have to introduce an amendment as part of the floor debate which attracts hundreds of amendments, many of which don’t get considered..

Requisitions

The transfer of excess Pentagon property to federal and state agencies started in the early 1990s for use in counter-drug activities. Congress later enacted as part of the 1997 defense authorization measure provisions that allow law enforcement agencies to get the military equipment to assist in arrest and apprehension missions, according to the Defense Logistics Agency whose Law Enforcement Support Office runs the so-called 1033 program.

Since its inception, the program has transferred more than $7.2 billion worth of property. In fiscal 2019 alone, $293 million worth of property was shifted to law enforcement agencies, according to the DLA.

Requisitions cover the gamut of items used by America’s military, including clothing, office supplies, tools, and rescue equipment, as well as vehicles, rifles, and other small arms. Of all the excess equipment provided through the program, only 5% are small arms and fewer than 1 percent are tactical vehicles, the DLA said on its website. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have enrolled in the program.

The Obama administration curtailed the 1033 program in 2015, blocking the transfer of armored vehicles and grenade launchers after local police suppressed protests in Ferguson, Missouri, using such military-grade equipment.

President Donald Trump reinstated the program in 2017, arguing that it was necessary for protecting the police and the life and property of Americans.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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