According to a CNN report, President Joe Biden plans to reinstate Obama-era limits on a federal police militarization program. While this sounds like progress toward ending the militarization of local police departments, the Obama limits were little more than window-dressing.
Through the federal grant programs such as the 1033 program, local police departments procure military-grade weapons. Police can also get military equipment through the Department of Homeland Security via 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 the wake of the Ferguson protests, Pres. Obama signed an executive order limiting some types of surplus military equipment available through federal programs or funding. A prohibited equipment list developed based on the Obama EO included tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles of any kind with weapons installed; firearms of .50-caliber or higher; ammunition of .50-caliber or higher; grenade launchers; bayonets; and camouflage uniforms. It also placed limits on other equipment, including aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command units, battering rams, and riot gear. Local agencies were required to develop a use plan and get federal approval before they could obtain these items.
The Obama executive order was largely window dressing and left the 1033 program effectively intact. Most of the items on the prohibited list had been previously banned or were rarely transferred through federal surplus programs. Even with the Obama limits, police continued to have access to military surplus equipment, including high powered “assault” rifles, mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPs) and armored Humvees, aircraft, drones, night vision equipment, battering rams, and other military-grade items.
In practice, the Obama EO did little to stem the flow of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. It was largely symbolic. In fact, the banned list was clearly intended to serve as a psychological bandaid. It made the public feel better about police militarization without actually changing the militarization policy in any substantive way. Obama even said he wanted to remove some of the intimidation factor inherent in militarized police forces.
In August 2017, President Donald Trump pulled the Obama bandaid off with an executive order reversing Obama’s EO, reopening the door for police departments to obtain items the Obama administration had banned.
Apparently, Biden wants to slap the bandaid back on and put the Obama-era window dressing back in place.
Congress took a small step toward limiting militarization in the 2020 Defense Authorization Act. A provision in that law bans grenades, bayonets, weaponized combat vehicles and weaponized drones from being transferred from the military to local police departments. But as was the case when Obama signed the original EO, this limited congressional tinkering and Biden’s orders won’t change much. The 1033 program will remain essentially intact. Military gear will continue to flow 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.
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 taking action at the state and local level, 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.