Democrats push to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police

Dozens of congressional Democrats are urging committee chairs to limit the types of military-grade equipment sent to local police departments amid ongoing protests over racial injustice.

More than 40 Democrats signed a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees calling on them to include the restrictions in the final version of the annual defense policy bill.

“As House and Senate conferees negotiate the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we encourage you to ensure that the conference report includes provisions requiring reform of the Sec. 1033 Program by imposing additional conditions and limitations on the transfer of Department of Defense property for law enforcement activities,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Hill ahead of its release, was sent to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), top Senate Armed Services Democrat Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) and top House Armed Services Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas).

The letter was organized by House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and co-signed by 41 other House Democrats. Several outside groups, including the progressive group Demand Progress, also backed the letter.

“While Demand Progress supports ending the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, Rep. Brown’s letter is an important step to limiting the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement while restoring accountability and transparency,” Yasmine Taeb, senior policy counsel, said in a statement to The Hill. “Demilitarizing the police is a crucial step towards the broader goals of ending institutional racism and stopping police brutality. Weapons of war have absolutely no place in our communities or anywhere else.”

Renewed attention has come to what’s known as the 1033 program amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and police violence. The program allows the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment to U.S. police departments.

Former President Obama curtailed the program in 2015 after local police suppressed protests in Ferguson, Mo., using military-grade equipment. But the Trump administration rescinded the restrictions in 2017.

In July, the Senate rejected an amendment to the NDAA that would have placed broad restrictions on the 1033 program.

But the chamber did approve a more narrow NDAA amendment from Inhofe that would limit the transfer of bayonets, grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones. The amendment would also require law enforcement to be trained in deescalation and citizens’ constitutional rights.

A separate section of the Senate NDAA would require the Pentagon to give preference to “disaster-related emergency preparedness” in deciding whether to transfer equipment in addition to the current preferences for counterdrug, counterterrorism or border security activities.

The House did not include 1033 reforms in its version of the NDAA. But the chamber did approve broad 1033 restrictions as part of a separate, sweeping police reform bill it passed in June.

The House and Senate have yet to formally convene a conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the NDAA, but staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been conducting informal negotiations since the chambers passed their bills in July.

In their letter to the committees, the House Democrats called the restrictions in the Inhofe amendment “common sense reforms [that] will ensure American cities and streets are not transformed into war zones.”

“Furthermore, the provision ensures that any law enforcement agency receiving defense property conducts training on ‘respect for the rights of citizens under the Constitution of the United States and de-escalation of force,’ ” they wrote. “Incorporating the training required by Sec. 1054 will bolster the understanding of law enforcement officers on the Constitutional rights of all Americans and ensure peaceful protests are not met with unnecessary force.”

The lawmakers also asked for further changes to the 1033 program to be included in the final NDAA, including guaranteeing that local authorities have “accountability, jurisdiction and oversight” of any transfers; requiring more notifications to Congress about the program; requiring annual accounting for the excess property that’s given to law enforcement; and creating avenues for redress if the equipment is used to violate civil liberties.

The Democrats also said they oppose the section of the Senate NDAA that would expand what activities are given preference to get equipment, arguing the “provision encourages the continued militarization of government activities that should instead be conducted under the principles of community policing.”

“The military is among the most respected institutions in American society, and rightly so,” they wrote. “Congress should both leverage and enhance the military’s reputation by making sure it bolsters democracy at home in a manner consistent with our values.”

Tags Adam Smith Anthony Brown Jack Reed Jim Inhofe Karen Bass Mac Thornberry

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