MEMPHIS, Tenn. (July 12, 2021) – Earlier this year, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance that takes the first step toward limiting the impact of federal programs that militarize local police.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Sheriff Floyd Bonner collaborated on the language for the new ordinance. Under the law, the Shelby County law enforcement agencies must get council approval before obtaining military surplus equipment from federal or state programs. Police can obtain “personal protective equipment” including bulletproof vests, body armor, helmets, shields, along with equipment to respond to a natural disaster, such as rescue vehicles, without council approval.
The ordinance applies both to the well-known 1033 program, along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners passed the measure 10-3 in January and it went into immediate effect.
Bonner said the Sheriff’s Office had not ever received equipment through the federal 1033 program.
While passage of this ordinance won’t end the militarization of Shelby County law enforcement, it will make it more difficult for police in the county to obtain such weapons and equipment, establishes a high level of transparency, and sets 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 and requiring council approval will 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
Police can get military-grade weapons through a number of federal programs, including the 1033 program, and via the Department of Homeland Security through 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.
The new ordinance will limit participation in federal police militarization programs and create a framework of transparency. It will 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. The passage of this ordinance takes the first step toward limiting police militarization in Shelby County, Tennessee.