Bill reduces military equipment available to police
Some question the wisdom of the change as civil unrest escalates
Congress’ new defense spending bill shrank a controversial program that provides military weapons to police departments. On Jan. 1, Congress overrode President Donald Trump’s veto to pass the $731 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill, which funds troop levels and purchases of military equipment, included new restrictions on the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which drew criticism during this past summer’s protests against police brutality. The bill’s provision will not have a drastic effect on police operations, but it could signal a move toward demilitarizing the police further at the risk of leaving them unprepared for future civil unrest.
Over the summer, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced legislation to cut the supply of military offensive weapons from local police, saying, “Weapons of war don’t belong in our local police departments and should never be used against the American people.” Schatz later introduced a provision into the NDAA to restrict police from receiving bayonets, grenades, some combat vehicles, and weaponized drones as part of the 1033 program. The program is named for the numbered section of the 1997 NDAA that authorized it. Schatz’s changes in the latest NDAA would require recipients of 1033 materials to receive training in de-escalation and the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
Since the 1990s, the program has let local police departments receive excess to military equipment such as guns, night vision goggles, grenades, and armored vehicles. President Barack Obama recalled some of the equipment and implemented stricter controls on others in 2015 after the Black Lives Matter movement gained attention. The recall effectively removed from circulation most weapons covered by the new defense bill, University of Michigan professor Kenneth Lowande told the Marshall Project. Still, some weapons from the program remain active in police departments: 21 boxes of grenades, 66 bayonets, and about 71,000 military-issued guns.
Critics of the 1033 program say it contributes to a militaristic mindset among police, tempting them to use force before it is necessary. When rioters forced their way into the capitol on Jan. 6, police did not use military equipment to restrain the crowd. One officer died after being struck on the head with a fire extinguisher, and dozens of others were injured.
Some said the contrast between police using military equipment to respond to Black Lives Matter protests last year and Capitol Police’s nonmilitary response to the mostly white, pro-Trump crowd proved racial bias in law enforcement. But Steven Sund, then chief of the Capitol Police, said security officials denied his request to have the National Guard on standby for the protests. Sund said his superiors worried about the “optics” of formally declaring an emergency ahead of Wednesday’s demonstration.
Randy Petersen, a former police officer and a scholar at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said people who advocate removing equipment to reduce police brutality should focus on use-of-force training and correcting wrong police mindsets. “Just taking it away is not always helpful,” he said. In some situations, “there’s nothing else you can use.” With extreme civil unrest, an armored vehicle might present bad optics, but “may be the only mode that police officers could respond to an emergency call in some areas of the city,” Petersen said. “Your alternative is they can show up in the armored personnel … or just not show up at all.”
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