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Eliminating this federal program would play a major part in demilitarizing the police

Since 1997, there’s been an easy pipeline of combat equipment from the military to local community police departments—including assault rifles, grenade launchers, and bomb-detonating robots.

Eliminating this federal program would play a major part in demilitarizing the police
[Photo: Carl D. Walsh/Portland Portland Press Herald/Getty Images]

In 2014, the ACLU reported that police departments in Arizona had collectively amassed a military arsenal that included: 712 rifles, 64 armored vehicles, 42 forced-entry tools, 32 bomb suits, 704 night-vision items, 830 units of surveillance equipment, and, in at least one department, “a .50 caliber machine gun that shoots bullets powerful enough to blast through the buildings on multiple city blocks.”

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This magnitude of military-grade weaponry stock is not an anomaly. Across the country, more than 8,000 police departments have been able to gather such military equipment with ease, and at no cost, through the 1033 Program, which allows the military to pass hand-me-down combat equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Once received, the government requires any sent equipment to be used in communities within a year, and this deployment has become one of the prime contributors to the militarization of local police.

Studies have shown that the use of this gear leads to more police violence and outsize targeting of communities of color. Though Obama rolled the program back, Trump reinstated it, and now, in the midst of the latest calls for broad police reform, some members of Congress are calling for legislation to restrict or altogether eliminate it.

“I remember getting boxes of junk from the military”

Originally known as the 1208 Program, it was created in 1990 for two specific reasons: to eliminate military surplus waste following the Cold War, and to assist in the hardline federal “war on drugs” program (along with the secretary of defense, the attorney general and the director of National Drug Control Policy had to agree that the equipment was necessary). But in 1996, under the National Defense Authorization Act, President Clinton signed into law the expanded 1033 Program, which scrapped the counter-drug stipulation, and allowed “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for . . . purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission.”

“I remember getting boxes of junk from the military,” says John DeCarlo, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and an expert in community policing who spent 34 years on the Branford, Connecticut, police force. “We would go down and we would pick out tarps and tents,” he recalls of the earlier years. Then, the department started receiving “armed personnel carriers.”

The transfers ramped up after 9/11. Between 2006 and 2014, law enforcement agencies amassed a collection of more than $1.5 billion of military equipment, including: 79,288 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, 11,959 bayonets, 3,972 combat knives, 422 helicopters, 479 bomb-detonator robots, more than 15,054 battle uniforms, and $39 million worth of electric wire. The ACLU also found that 500 departments had Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to deflect landmines and roadside bombs in Iraq. (School police departments are also eligible to receive military equipment; a San Diego school, for instance, received an 18-ton MRAP.)

Applications for equipment, directed to the Defense Logistics Agency (part of the Department of Defense) are seemingly not stringent, says Casey Delehanty, an assistant professor of social science at Gardner-Webb University, who has studied the effect of the program on police violence. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that, by creating a fictitious agency and a fake website, it was able to procure $1.2 million worth of items, including night-vision goggles, simulated rifles, and simulated pipe bombs. Items can also get into the wrong hands. Investigative reporter Susan Katz Keating found that police officers have fraudulently accessed, transferred, and embezzled gear, and some departments have lost track of their equipment.

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In 2015, in the wake of the the death of Michael Brown and the following protests in Ferguson, President Obama issued an executive order to cut back the 1033 program. Specifically, the order took back highly militarized gear from departments, including vehicles, bayonets, and grenade launchers. According to Kenneth Lowande, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, the order was effective, and the federal government recalled a lot of that equipment within six months from the 300 departments that stocked it. The Pentagon reported the return of items included 126 vehicles, 138 grenade launchers, and 1,623 bayonets, according to The New York Times.

But, in 2017, in a move spearheaded by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration reversed the Obama order. “It sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and makes officers more effective,” the Justice Department wrote in a background paper on the decision.

[Photo: Sebastiano Tomada/Getty Images]

How military equipment contributes to violent and racist police tactics

The claim that the program leads to safer communities and crime reduction has been contested by a handful of studies. Generally, data on policing is notoriously sparse. Since 1033 started in 1997, Lowande says the program has kept bad-quality records. Delehanty even remembers an excuse the Defense Logistics Agency gave to a colleague that, prior to 2014, the agency had simply saved new data over the same Excel file every quarter. “There’s a general obstinance to transparency that prevents us from getting a bird’s-eye, systemic view,” he says.

Using what data is available on inventory and crime rates from 2014 to 2019, Lowande’s recent working paper found that police department access to military equipment had “no detectable impact on violent crime or officer safety,” and concluded that “federal reforms designed to demilitarize local law enforcement would not have the downside risks suggested by proponents of military transfers.” Delehanty’s earlier study found that the equipment made police officers more violent. “More-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police,” reported Ryan Welch, one of Delehanty’s collaborators, in The Washington Post.

A third study in 2018 by Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, focused on Maryland, where more data was available, and on SWAT team deployments. It found that SWAT teams, which are formed more easily with this received equipment, are disproportionately sent out on a regular basis to communities of color. “Militarized police units are more often deployed in areas with high concentrations of African Americans, even after adjusting for local crime rates,” Mummolo noted. “The routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to increase the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state with no detectable public safety benefit.” He proposed that reducing the use of militarized SWAT teams would “improve perceptions of police with little or no safety loss.”

Of course, when considering police militarization, equipment is only one part of the puzzle. DeCarlo, the ex-chief, mentions elements innate in departments that encourage a battlefield mentality, including: the content of police academy courses, the lack of knowledge of the communities that officers serve, the militaristic sense of brotherhood, and the culture of soldier versus enemy. But equipment can be a powerful gateway to all these cultural elements and the aggressive behavior they engender. Delehanty and Welch’s study suggested that when police receive military gear, it has a ripple effect on the culture. “They use more military language, create elite units like SWAT teams, and become more likely to jump into high-risk situations,” Welch reported.

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1033 reform today

The protests against police brutality, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have reignited a discussion of police reform, including the demilitarization of police. On May 31, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii announced he’ll be proposing legislation, in the form of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, to “recalibrate” the 1033 Program. It’s not the first time Schatz has advocated for 1033 reform; in 2015, he proposed a joint bill with Senator Rand Paul to increase the transparency and accountability of the program. Paul’s chief strategist has tweeted in support of Schatz this time, too.

Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego has proposed a broader criminal justice reform package, including changes to the 1033 Program, which he calls “one of the most absurd programs in the United States government.” His statement continues: “Community police officers are not soldiers. Fellow Americans are not the enemy. We must stop providing weapons of war to police.” And, on June 3, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted a list of police reforms for Senate consideration, and included prohibiting “the transfer of offensive military equipment to police departments.”

It’s unclear yet whether any of the proposed packages will simply amend the program or cut it entirely. The reasoning for keeping it in some form is that some of the hand-me-downs are “innocuous,” Delehanty says, consisting of things like filing cabinets and gloves, which cash-strapped departments may find useful. But, for Delehanty, as long as it isn’t eliminated, and the pipeline is still open, it’s easy for an official to reverse it—just like Trump did.

Even if it were cut, there’s still a long way to go to demilitarize police tactics and culture, not to mention institutional and systemic biases that need to be addressed. Still, eliminating the 1033 is a step in the right direction. “Police were never meant to be military,” DeCarlo says. “I think that any effort at demilitarization is a good thing.”

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