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House defeats measure to demilitarize the police

The Biden administration should now act to stem the flow of military-grade equipment to local law enforcement.

The Department of Defense has transferred $1.8 billion worth of surplus, military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the United States since 1990 through a mechanism known as the 1033 Program. The vast majority of that controlled equipment, valued at $1.6 billion, has been transferred in the past decade. “Controlled” items include small arms, demilitarized vehicles, helicopters, and night vision equipment from the Pentagon. This equipment has been used disproportionately to police black and brown communities, sometimes justified by America’s ill-devised wars on drugs and terror. It’s no wonder a majority of Americans support making it illegal for government agencies to transfer military-grade weapons to civilian police.

“A pig with lipstick is still a pig and military-grade helicopter secured from the battlefields from Afghanistan is a military-grade helicopter being used against its citizens,” Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) tweeted this week. “Reform the 1033 program.”

Johnson’s tweet came after 10 minutes of debate in the House over his amendment to curb the flow of weapons from the Pentagon to police. Unfortunately, the amendment failed to pass, in significant part due to fearmongering by Republican lawmakers unwilling to confront the reality and repercussions of using military weapons and equipment as a law enforcement tool.

Johnson’s amendment sought to restrict the Pentagon from transferring controlled property such as firearms, ammunition, drones, and armored vehicles for any other purpose than disaster or rescue efforts. The amendment did not seek to restrict non-controlled equipment, although that did not stop representatives like Scott Franklin (R-Fla.) from painting a misleading dystopian future in which police departments couldn’t access tents, generators, or air conditioners if the program were discontinued.

“Rather than defund police, this amendment restores civilian authority over law enforcement,” Johnson responded. “No law enforcement agency should be able to order equipment directly from the battlefield without the consent of the governed.”

The 1033 Program has bypassed the consent of the governed for decades. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991, Congress authorized the Pentagon to send excess property to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. In 1997, Congress expanded the program to allow these agencies to acquire excess military equipment for “bona fide” law enforcement purposes. Too often these “bona fide” law enforcement efforts ended up being jarring displays of misplaced power and repression carried out with weapons acquired without the input or oversight of civilian authorities.

Police clad in camouflage pointed rifles at people and prowled through residential streets in mine resistant vehicles during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd in 2020 were overwhelmingly peaceful, but in some cities, unarmed civilians were met by law enforcement holding assault rifles atop armored vehicles. These events are the canaries in the coal mine for the widespread reality — one in three law enforcement agencies has received equipment through the 1033 Program, and more civilians die and crime persists when this equipment enters the hands of civilian law enforcement.

In addition to the real human cost of this program, the financial burden balloons the Pentagon budget by disposing of usable equipment that then must be replaced. This is happening at a time when advocates of higher Pentagon spending claim there is not a penny to spare in DOD’s budget. The Intercept reported that as much as one-third of the equipment that the Department of Defense transferred has never been used. At the same time, the Pentagon continues to request new equipment and the cost of maintaining and replacing the military-grade equipment strains police budgets.

We should not be equipping civilian police who interact with everyday citizens the way we equip soldiers going into war zones. The 1,132 mine-resistant vehicles, 348 helicopters, 58,480 assault rifles, 6,701 pieces of night-vision equipment, and 65,859 sights that have flowed from the Pentagon to police have not made communities safer and eroded trust in the police who turn these weapons against the public. Given the failure of Congress to act, it is now up to the Biden administration to step up and curb the flow of military equipment to local police forces, in the interests of public safety and security.