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Police De-Militarization Bill Reintroduced to Bar 'Gifts of Grenade Launchers and High-Caliber Rifles'

"Before another town is transformed into a war zone... we must rein in this program and revisit our view of the safety of American cities and towns."

Police force protestors from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on August 11, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as residents and their supporters protested the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown who was killed Saturday in this suburban St. Louis community. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Heavily armed police were a constant presence during the 2014 demonstrations following the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Scott Olsen/Getty Images) 

A broad range of progressive advocates welcomed Tuesday's reintroduction of a House bill that would limit a Defense Department program under which thousands of domestic law enforcement agencies have received billions of dollars worth of military equipment. 

"Black and brown communities are policed one way—with a warrior mentality—and white and more affluent communities are policed another way."
—Rep. Hank Johnson

More than 70 House Democrats and one Republican reintroduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement  Act of 2021 (pdf)—sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.)—which would place restrictions and transparency requirements on the 1033 program, the Pentagon's excess equipment transfer initiative. 

"Our neighborhoods need to be protected, but Americans and our founding fathers opposed blurring the line between police and the military," Johnson said in a statement. "What has been made perfectly clear, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, is that Black and brown communities are policed one way—with a warrior mentality—and white and more affluent communities are policed another way."

"Before another town is transformed into a war zone with gifts of grenade launchers and high-caliber rifles, we must rein in this program and revisit our view of the safety of American cities and towns," Johnson added. 

As Johnson's office summarized, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act would:

  • Prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as military weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, weaponized drones, armored military vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives;
  • Require that recipients certify that they can account for all military weapons and equipment;
  • Prohibit re-gifting and require recipients to account for all DoD weapons and equipment; and 
  • Add requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment, implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't surplus the equipment for resale, and define drones more clearly.

Human rights advocates hailed the bill's reintroduction.

"With over 1,000 deaths at the hands of police every year, we should be looking to restrain police, not arm them with deadly militarized weapons," said José Woss, legislative manager at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, one of dozens of organizations supporting the measure. "Sadly, that's exactly what we're doing with the 1033 program."

"As a Quaker, I know that each and every single life is precious," added Woss. "It's alarming that peaceful protestors and everyday citizens are treated like threats in a war zone. The dehumanization and violence on display in communities of color is even worse. The 1033 program has no place in our streets, it must be ended."

More than 11,500 U.S. law enforcement agencies have participated in the 1033 program since its widespread implementation in the 1990s during then-President Bill Clinton's escalation of the so-called war on drugs. Over $7.4 billion worth of military equipment—including armored vehicles, heavy machine guns, aircraft, and surveillance gear—has been transferred under the program. 

Activists have long decried the program's acceleration of police militarization. Images of heavily armed officers and mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) heavy armored combat vehicles deployed against protesters following the 2014 police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri brought widespread attention to the issue. Around the same time, numerous school districts around the nation made headlines when their police officers acquired MRAPs under the Pentagon program. 

Largely in response to public backlash after Ferguson, then-President Barack Obama in 2015 limited the equipment available to law enforcement agencies under the 1033 program, banning the transfer of tanks, grenade lauchers, heavy machine guns, and other battlefield weaponry. However, former President Donald Trump signed a 2017 executive order lifting many of his predecessor's restrictions.

President Joe Biden is expected to issue an executive order reinstating the Obama-era proscriptions. Recent developments including Johnson's bill and last week's House passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act could affect the content and scope of the president's order. 

The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act has been introduced numerous times in both the House and Senate since 2015. Last year, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) also introduced the Demilitarizing Local Law Enforcement Act, which would have ended the 1033 program. 

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