MONTPELIER, Vt. (May 1, 2015) – A bill taking an important first step against federal programs militarizing local police was passed by the Vermont state House last week.
Informally known as the 1033 Program, the Pentagon provides local law enforcement, at little or no upfront cost, surplus federal property, including aircraft, armored vehicles, automatic weapons, and night vision equipment originally intended for use by the United States Armed Forces without even obtaining approval of the local governing body.
Introduced by Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais) in January along with 16 co-sponsors, House Bill 8 (H8) would require law enforcement agencies to alert the legislative bodies of the municipalities or counties they serve before military transfers from the federal government take place.
The bill reads, in part:
Any municipal police department that applies to receive from the federal government a dangerous or deadly weapon… or any armored or mine-protected vehicle shall notify each legislative body of a municipality for which it provides law enforcement services within 15 days of the application.
Within 7 days of receiving notification from the federal government of an award of a dangerous or deadly weapon… or any armored or mine-protected vehicle, a sheriff’s department shall notify each legislative body of a municipality within the department’s designated county of the award.
In addition, H8 would create a mandatory annual audit by the Commissioner of Public Safety examining the records of all property given to state or local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program. The findings would be sent to the Office of the Attorney General.
While the bill would do nothing to stop local law enforcement from procuring military hardware from the federal government, it would represent a small first step toward limiting police militarization by bringing the process into the spotlight. Generally, police departments obtain military equipment in complete secret with no oversight or accountability. H8 would at least put the process in the spotlight by informing local elective officials before police take possession of such gear, allowing them to take action to stop it if they choose to.
Almost 13,000 agencies in all 50 states and four U.S. territories participate in the military “recycling” program, and the share of equipment and weaponry gifted each year continues to expand. In 2011, $500 million worth of military equipment was distributed to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. That number jumped to $546 million in 2012.
Since 1990, $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies through the 1033 program, in addition to various other programs supposedly aimed at fighting the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terror.
According to testimony from bill sponsor Rep. Ancel, “data obtained by NPR through a FOIA request to the Pentagon indicates that every county in Vermont received property under this program except for Grand Isle.” Washington County even received an MRAP, a tank-like vehicle used in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
H8 would create a foundation that legislators could build on. The next step would be to require local legislative approval before police could take possession of military hardware. Vermont could also follow up by taking Montana’s lead and ban procurement of certain military equipment.
Stronger bills were passed this year in New Jersey and Montana. Similar bills are being considered in Massachusetts, Minnesota and elsewhere. “These states are taking important first steps towards ending this federal militarization and control of local police,” said Michael Boldin of the Tenth Amendment Center. “As James Madison taught us, refusing to cooperate with federal programs in multiple states is the most effective way to bring them down.”
H8 passed through the House successfully on April 23. The legislation will now have to pass through the Senate Committee on Rules before the full Senate is able to concur with the House’s decision and send the bill to the Governor’s desk.