Washington, DC — On Monday, the Trump administration lifted a ban on military surplus hardware being transferred to police departments across the United States. The controversial 1033 program became a source of citizen outrage after images of police armed with military grade weaponry, including grenade launchers and armored MRAPs, were beamed into people homes across the country during the battlefield-style police response to the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
As many Americans noted, Ferguson, Missouri looked like a war zone, with police kitted out in Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles — virtually indistinguishable from US soldiers.
Shortly after the American public became widely aware, and largely outraged, over the extreme militarization of their local police forces, President Obama signed an Executive Order (EO) that blocked large-caliber weapons, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and other heavy military hardware from being repurposed from battlefields across the globe to small town USA.
This was one of very few notable pro-liberty moves by the Obama admin, and now it’s gone.
The new Trump plan goes into effect immediately and completely rolls back the EO that blocked state, county, and local police departments from obtaining military weapons of war. Unsurprisingly, drug warrior extraordinaire, Attorney General Jeff Session led the charge to reinstate the program.
The administration’s action, first disclosed by USA TODAY, would restore “the full scope of a longstanding program for recycling surplus, lifesaving gear from the Department of Defense, along with restoring the full scope of grants used to purchase this type of equipment from other sources,” according to an administration summary of the new program recently circulated to some law enforcement groups.
Civil rights advocates were quick to warn that the 1033 program’s reinstatement threatened to inflame tensions in minority communities where such equipment has been deployed in the past.
“It is both exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible for the administration to lift the ban on the transfer of certain surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement organizations,” Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told USA Today. “Just a few summers ago, our nation watched as Ferguson raised the specter of increased police militarization. The law enforcement response there and in too many places across the country demonstrated how perilous, especially for black and brown communities, a militarized police force can be.”
In addition to Ferguson, the extreme militarization of police was clearly on display in Standing Rock, as police looked and acted more like a military contingent than peace officers sworn to uphold the law.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said in announcing the ban in 2015.
The ban on military gear was a policy recommendation from a White House advisory group which formed after the rioting in Ferguson. The Task Force on 21st Century Policing, chaired by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general, called on law enforcement officials to “minimize the appearance of a military operation” when policing mass demonstrations.
“Avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust,” the task force urged.
According to the USA Today report:
The previously-banned equipment also included tracked armored vehicles, bayonets and grenade launchers.
The Obama order did allow for the limited use of other surplus — aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command units, battering rams and riot gear — on the condition that such equipment was approved by the federal government.
The surplus sharing agreement, also known as the “1033 program,” was created by Congress nearly 30 years ago as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It was originally intended to assist local law enforcement in drug investigations.
The program was expanded in 1997 to include all local law enforcement operations, including counter-terrorism. Since then, according to the government, more than $5 billion in gear has been transferred to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.
Make no mistake that America has been quietly arming its police for battle with its own citizens, under the guise of the drug war, since the early 1990s.
As part of its misguided “war on drugs,” US policy makers decided that if police were to act like drug warriors, they needed to be equipped like warriors. Since that time, almost $5 billion in military hardware was transferred from the military to law enforcement, according to a report by the ACLU. By giving military hardware to law enforcement, the NDAA and 1033 program encourages police to employ military-like tactics and weaponry against the American public.
According to a Newsweek report:
1033 procurements are not matters of public record. And the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which coordinates distribution of military surplus, refuses to reveal the names of agencies requesting “tactical” items, like assault rifles and MRAPs — for security reasons, a spokesperson for DLA told Newsweek via email. One can only trace “tactical” items as far the county of the requesting agency. In the case of Ferguson, that means St. Louis County.
To give you an idea of the absolute absurdity of the 1033 program, police in Watertown, Connecticut, (population 22,514) acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle (sticker price: $733,000), designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, for $2,800. To date, there has never been a landmine reported in Watertown, Connecticut.
Police in Bloomington, Georgia, (population: 2,713) acquired four grenade launchers through the program, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Police in small towns in Michigan and Indiana have used the 1033 Program to acquire “MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles,” the South Bend Tribune reported.
These are just a few out of hundreds of examples of the overkill this program not only allows but promotes.
The proclivity to treat policing in a militarized manner is inherently dangerous. Given the proliferation of military hardware and military training among police agencies, law enforcement’s inability to de-escalate dangerous situations, and instead respond to these situations by escalating force, is no surprise.
The founding fathers warned of the dangers of a standing army – and police are increasingly looking like the standing army they cautioned us against. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.