Stop police militarization

August 28, 2014

As seen in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution:

The overwhelming militarized response of St. Louis-area police forces to protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager is an overdue wake-up call.

Images we saw coming out of Ferguson, Mo., were breathtaking. Americans saw firsthand what militarization of our police departments looks and feels like. With the streets of Ferguson looking like a war zone, police officers took on the look of soldiers clad in camouflage and riot gear as they aimed their assault weapons at peaceful demonstrators from the turret of an armored personnel carrier.

Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police agencies under what’s called the 1033 Program. Any local law enforcement agency that wants military-grade equipment and weapons simply has to fill out a one-page form with a wish list of whatever surplus equipment is listed on a federal website. Once approved, a police department can acquire the equipment free of charge if picked up within 14 days.

These tools of war can be acquired without the knowledge or consent of the local governing authority, with its taxpayers ultimately responsible for maintenance, insurance and repairs of this expensive military equipment that a city or county may neither want nor need.

What we saw in Ferguson could happen in any city or town. Unless Americans want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone, we should all be concerned.

While I applaud President Barack Obama for reviewing the 1033 Program in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve been calling for a review since March. I’m introducing bipartisan legislation to reform the program before our civilian police militarize any further.

The program lacks meaningful oversight and accountability. We need an honest debate on the type of surplus military-grade weaponry that is appropriate for transfer to our streets.

My legislation will ban the free transfer of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, other armored personnel carriers, armored drones, assault weapons greater than .50 caliber, silencers and certain aircraft. It will also ensure that the Defense Department undertakes an annual accounting of what’s been transferred, by whom and to whom, to prevent military items from being auctioned on eBay or sold to the highest bidder.

Ferguson is not alone in having a militarized police force. There are countless stories of police departments getting (and later selling) assault weapons, drones and other military-grade equipment ill-suited for America’s main streets.

The Columbia, S.C., Police Department, for example, received a free MRAP vehicle from the Pentagon that otherwise would have cost Columbia nearly $700,000 The city is responsible for all repairs and upkeep going forward.

Columbia is not alone. The Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Police Department acquired Humvees and MRAPs, proudly displaying them at a car show. Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, as did localities across America, including Texas’s McLennan and Dallas counties; Idaho’s Boise and Nampa; and Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville and Madison, among others.

Even here in DeKalb County, my guess is that citizens might be surprised to know that our local police force has an MRAP and more than 50 assault rifles from the program, according to The New York Times.

We recognize that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” But are MRAPs really needed in small-town America? Are improvised explosive devices, grenade launchers, mines, silencers and other war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids or Doraville?


It behooves us to press pause on the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage and can acquire without proper local government oversight.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, is a member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees. Michael Shank, associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, contributed to this article.


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