BOSTON, Mass. (May 5, 2021) – Bills introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate would take the first step to limit state participation in federal police militarization programs by limiting local law enforcement agencies from acquiring certain military equipment from federal programs.
A coalition of Democrats introduced House Bill 2479 (H2479), and Senate Bill 1539 (S1539) on March 29. The legislation would require law enforcement agencies to get local government approval before obtaining military equipment through federal programs.
The bills would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from applying for or receiving military-grade controlled property or funds for the acquisition or transfer of military-grade controlled property from a federal agency – unless the local law enforcement agency provides notice to the local legislative body, including a detailed list of supplies and equipment sought to be acquired or transferred. A public hearing would also be required, giving the public an opportunity to testify and comment. Finally, the local governing body would have to vote to approve the intended application or transfer.
The legislation applies both to the well-known 1033 program, along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government.
While passage of H2479/S1539) wouldn’t end the militarization, it would make it more difficult for police to obtain such weapons and equipment, and set the stage for further limits in the future.
Police departments often obtain military and surveillance equipment from the federal government in complete secrecy. Requiring public disclosure of all requests for military gear would bring the process into the open and provide an opportunity for concerned residents to stop the acquisition through their local representatives.
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. Biden will reportedly reinstitute the Obama policy, but it was nothing more than window-dressing. In practice, the Obama EO did little to stem the flow of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Even with the Obama-era limits back in place, the 1033 program will remain essentially intact. Military gear will continue to pour into local police agencies, just as it did when Obama was in the White House.
Even if you see the Obama/Biden limits as a positive, the multiple federal flip-flops underscore the importance of putting limits on police militarization at the state and local level. Federal policy tends to change depending on the party in power. Whatever limits Biden imposes through executive order can be undone with a stroke of the next president’s pen. The only way to effectively end police militarization for good is permanently withdrawing the state from these federal programs.
Passage of H2479/S1539 would limit Massachusetts’ participation in federal police militarization programs and create a framework of transparency. It would also create a foundation for the public to stop their local police from obtaining this type of gear.
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 and surveillance technology, 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 S1539/H2479 would take a first step toward limiting police militarization in Massachusetts.
H2479 and S1539 have both been referred to the Joint Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. Bills must have a hearing and be voted out of committee with a majority in order to continue on in the legislative process.