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Michael Haugen | May 18, 2015
After an announcement made by Obama administration officials on Monday, it will now be more difficult for state and local law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military hardware under the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program, the Washington Post reports.
The administration is hoping the move begins to quell public concerns about the program, which reached a head after a series of widely reported incidents last year, including the reaction to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
According to a White House working group report that suggested recommended changes to the program, transfer of equipment such as grenade launchers, bayonets, and tracked armored vehicles are banned effective immediately. State and local agencies seeking to petition for other equipment—such as tactical vehicles like MRAP’s, explosives or riot gear—must now submit additional certification that the gear will be used responsibly.
In a conference call, Cecilia Muñoz, White House Director of Domestic Policy, stated the move was about balancing the effectiveness of enforcement agencies with the necessity of those agencies possessing the equipment:
“The idea is to make sure we strike the right balance of providing equipment that is appropriate and important, while at the same time put standards in place that give a clear reason for the transfer of that equipment, with clear training and safety provisions in place.”
Beyond pubic disquiet about excess military hardware being used in civilian applications, the 1033 program also puts significant strain on the appropriate constitutional relationship between various levels of government. Over 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in the federal program, and with hundreds of local departments leap-frogging over state governments—who have constitutionally provided oversight authority over them—and looking to the federal government instead, the states are finding their appropriations process for such equipment being usurped. In turn, the ability of successive levels of government to be accountable for those lower on the totem—and, ultimately, to the people–is diminished.
In a column for The Hill last year, Derek Cohen, senior policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, states that the 1033 program amounts to localities “rattling a cup at the federal government”:
“Criminal justice policy is, and always has been, controlled at the state level. This authority is then delegated to cities and counties pursuant to most states’ constitutions. This ensures that the potentially coercive authority of government is accountable to elected local — and distally to state — officials. Supporters of recent reform efforts would be more effective seeing that individuals maintain as much control over their police as possible.”
Indeed. Returning oversight of law enforcement activities to their appropriate arbiters should reestablish a healthy level of suspicion when agencies seek to acquire equipment of questionable utility, such as the case of Los Angeles school districts receiving three grenade launchers, assault rifles, and an MRAP under the program. With school districts successfully petitioning for military gear, which can create the perception of heavy-handed escalation of police tactics, those decrying the “militarization” of local policing can’t be readily dismissed.
In light of this, the administration’s announcement is welcome, but reforms are late in the making. Distribution of excess hardware began in earnest in the late 1990’s with sensible aims, at least at the time: rather than discard billions of dollars’ worth of equipment, simply repurpose it.
But as with many ideas with the best intentions, there have been unintended consequences that have crept to the surface over the eighteen year life of the program. While blame doesn’t belong to any one administration, we’ve been witnessing problems for some time now that may have been avoided sooner. Let us hope this new announcement begins to let some of the pressure out of the balloon.