RICHMOND, Va. (Dec. 1, 2020) – Last month, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law that will put limits on state and local law enforcement agencies’ ability to acquire certain military equipment from federal programs.
Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax Station) introduced House Bill 5049 (HB5049) on Aug. 17. The new law prohibits a state or local law enforcement agency from acquiring or purchasing the following military equipment.
(i) weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles
(ii) aircraft that are configured for combat or are combat-coded and have no established commercial flight application
(iii) grenades or similar explosives or grenade launchers from a surplus program operated by the federal government
(iv) armored multi-wheeled vehicles that are mine-resistant, ambush-protected, and configured for combat, also known as MRAPs, from a surplus program operated by the federal government
(vi) firearms of .50 caliber or higher
(vii) ammunition of .50 caliber or higher
(viii) weaponized tracked armored vehicles.
The law specifies that it does not “restrict the acquisition or purchase of an armored high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle, also known as HMMWVs.”
The legislation applies both to the well-known 1033 program, along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government, as well as federal programs that fund the acquisition of surplus military equipment.
HB5049 requires any agency in possession of prohibited items to cease using them unless they obtain a waiver from the Criminal Justice Services Board.
The House and Senate initially passed different versions of HB5049. The Senate stripped out important transparency provisions that would have required law enforcement agencies to publish a public notice within 14 days of requesting any allowable military equipment from a federal program. The legislation went to a conference committee that presented a compromise version. On Oct. 14, the House gave final approval by a 54-42 vote and the Senate approved the measure 21-17. Gov. Ralph Northam sent the bill back with amendment recommendations, including a waiver to allow prohibited equipment for “search and rescue operations.” The Assembly rejected the amendment recommendation and sent the bill back to the governor. Northam signed the bill into law on Nov. 18. It will go into effect on March 1, 2021.
While the enactment of HB5049 will not end the militarization of local cops, it will keep some dangerous weapons out of the hands of police officers and set the stage for further limits in the future.
FEDERAL SURPLUS AND GRANT MONEY
Through the federal 1033 Program, local police departments procure military-grade weapons. Police can also get military equipment through the Department of Homeland Security via the (DHS) “Homeland Security Grant Program.” The DHS doles out over $1 billion in counterterrorism funds to state and local police each year. 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.”
In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that gave a push to local police militarization. Trump’s action rescinded an Obama-era policy meant to provide greater transparency and oversight around the Department of Defense 1033 program and other federal resources that provide military weapons to local police.
Passage of HB5049 limits Virginia’s participation in federal police militarization programs.
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 to get this military-grade gear, they become less likely to cooperate with the feds, and it also removes incentives for partnerships. Passage of HB5049 takes a first step toward limiting police militarization in Virginia.
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