SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Oct. 8, 2021) – Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that sets the foundation for local communities to opt out of federal programs that militarize their police.
Asm. David Chiu (D) and a coalition of Democrats introduced Assembly Bill 481 (AB481) on Feb. 8. The new statute requires law enforcement agencies to get local government approval before obtaining military equipment through federal programs.
Under the law, police departments are required to develop a detailed military equipment use policy and present it in an open meeting before obtaining military equipment. After the public meeting, the local governing body will either approve or deny the acquisition. Law enforcement agencies are also required to get local government approval prior to May 1, 2022, in order to continue using military equipment already in the department’s possession as of Jan. 1, 2022.
As defined by AB481, military equipment includes the following:
(1) Unmanned, remotely piloted, powered aerial or ground vehicles.
(2) Mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles or armored personnel carriers. However, police versions of standard consumer vehicles are specifically excluded from this subdivision.
(3) High mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWV), commonly referred to as Humvees, two and one-half-ton trucks, five-ton trucks, or wheeled vehicles that have a breaching or entry apparatus attached. However, unarmored all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and motorized dirt bikes are specifically excluded from this subdivision.
(4) Tracked armored vehicles that provide ballistic protection to their occupants and utilize a tracked system instead of wheels for forward motion.
(5) Command and control vehicles that are either built or modified to facilitate the operational control and direction of public safety units.
(6) Weaponized aircraft, vessels, or vehicles of any kind.
(7) Battering rams, slugs, and breaching apparatuses that are explosive in nature. However, items designed to remove a lock, such as bolt cutters, or a handheld ram designed to be operated by one person, are specifically excluded from this subdivision.
(8) Firearms of .50 caliber or greater. However, standard issue shotguns are specifically excluded from this subdivision.
(9) Ammunition of .50 caliber or greater. However, standard issue shotgun ammunition is specifically excluded from this subdivision.
(10) Specialized firearms and ammunition of less than .50 caliber, including assault weapons as defined in Sections 30510 and 30515 of the Penal Code, with the exception of standard issue service weapons and ammunition of less than .50 caliber that are issued to officers, agents, or employees of a law enforcement agency or a state agency.
(11) Any firearm or firearm accessory that is designed to launch explosive projectiles.
(12) “Flashbang” grenades and explosive breaching tools, “tear gas,” and “pepper balls,” excluding standard, service-issued handheld pepper spray.
(13) Taser Shockwave, microwave weapons, water cannons, and the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD).
(14) The following projectile launch platforms and their associated munitions: 40mm projectile launchers, “bean bag,” rubber bullet, and specialty impact munition (SIM) weapons.
(15) Any other equipment as determined by a governing body or a state agency to require additional oversight.
The law applies both to the well-known 1033 program along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government.
On Sept. 9, the Senate approved the final version of AB481 by a 24-11 vote. The Assembly concurred with the Senate amendments the same day by a 48-25 vote. With Gov. Newsom’s signature, the law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.
While passage of AB481 will not end the militarization, it will make it more difficult for police to obtain such weapons and equipment, and it sets the stage for further limits in the future.
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 was reportedly planning to reinstitute the Obama policy, but to date has not followed through. Regardless, the Biden “reform” 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 if Biden eventually gets around to putting the Obama-era limits back in place, the 1033 program would remain essentially intact. Military gear would continue to pour into local police agencies, just as it did when Obama was in the White House.
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.
While the passage of AB481 wouldn’t end police militarization or stop government surveillance, it would take the first step by creating a framework for accountability and transparency for programs in California. 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 AB481 would take a first step toward limiting police militarization in California.
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