BOSTON, Mass. (Oct. 21, 2017) – Last week, a Massachusetts joint legislative committee held a hearing on three bills that would take a first step toward limiting the impact of federal programs that militarize local police.
Rep. Denise Provost (D-Middlesex) introduced House Bill 2503 (H.2503) earlier this year. Sen. Michael Barrett (D-Third Middlesex) sponsors a Senate version of the legislation (S.1277) A second House bill (H.1276) sponsored by Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) has similar provisions. All three bills would prohibit law enforcement agencies from acquiring a long list of military equipment from federal surplus programs without local government approval. The legislation would also require state police to get approval from the legislature before obtaining military equipment.
The law would apply both to the well-known 1033 program, along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government. The legislation covers an extensive list of military items including unmanned aerial vehicles, armored vehicles, bayonets, bombs, directed-energy weapons, grenade launchers, international mobile subscriber identity catchers, launch vehicles, mines, missiles, radioactive or nuclear weapons, rockets, silencers, torpedoes, toxicological agents, including chemical agents, biological agents, and associated equipment, or ultrasonic devices used for crowd dispersal.
Police departments often obtain military equipment from the federal government in complete secrecy. Requiring local government approval would bring the process into the open and provide an opportunity for concerned residents to stop the acquisition through their local representatives.
Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a hearing on the bills on Oct. 10. As reported by the Daily Free Press, Barrett told the committee the legislation would provide a level of oversight currently lacking in the process, adding that it’s important to know what the state and local police departments acquire through the 1033 program.
“The idea here is to provide some reasonable boundaries around this process rather than to enact a strict prohibition,” he said. “At the state level, we need oversight of what the state police acquire and our bill will provide that. At the local level, we would ask that there would be a public hearing, kind of a detail of what the local police department proposes to acquire under the 1033 program.”
South Peabody resident Steven Presser testified in favor of the legislation. He said he was particularly concerned with law enforcement agencies acquiring high-tech surveillance equipment.
“I do a lot of privacy work. I have seen how very innocuous things can be very revealing. I think it’s important before these things go into the field to understand all the ramifications and understand what limits are necessary.”
Presser said he knew representatives from the Boston Police Department oppose the bills.
“I understand where they come from when they say they’re against limits and red tape and things that stop them from getting tools, but I think especially in the case of surveillance technology I think this is actually to their benefit.”
FEDERAL SURPLUS AND GRANT MONEY
Through the federal 1033 Program, local police departments procure military grade weapons, including automatic assault rifles, body armor and mine resistant armored vehicles – essentially unarmed tanks. Police departments can even get their hands on military helicopters and other aircraft.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) runs the “Homeland Security Grant Program,” which in 2013 gave more than $900 million in counterterrorism funds to state and local police. According to a 2012 Senate report, this money has been used to purchase tactical vehicles, drones, and even tanks with little obvious benefit to public safety. And, according to ProPublica, “In 1994, the Justice Department and the Pentagon funded a five-year program to adapt military security and surveillance technology for local police departments that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”
The proposed legislation would stop police from getting military equipment from both programs without local government approval.This would ensure accountability and transparency.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
Arming ‘peace officers’ like they’re ready to occupy an enemy city is totally contrary to the society envisioned by the Founders. They’ve turned ‘protect and serve’ into ‘command and control.’
In the 1980s, the federal government began arming, funding and training local police forces, turning peace officers into soldiers to fight in its unconstitutional “War on Drugs.” The militarization went into hyper-drive after 9/11 when a second front opened up – the “War on Terror.”
By making it more difficult for local police of this military-grade gear and ensuring they can’t do it in secret, it makes them less likely to cooperate with the feds and removes incentives for partnerships. Passage of these bills would take a first step toward limiting police militarization in Massachusetts.
The legislation will need to pass out of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security before moving on in the legislative process.The committee may combine all of the provisions into one bill before taking a vote to advance it to the full House and Senate.