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Dozens of House Dems and Progressive Groups Push Biden to Curb Militarization of Police

"It is absurd that the Pentagon has so much funding they can send their 'excess' weaponry to police departments around the country. We need to demilitarize our police and defund the Pentagon now."

Heavily armed and camouflaged police officers stand by their armored vehicle on November 4, 2016 in Wilmington, Ohio. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Heavily armed and camouflaged police officers stand by their armored vehicle on November 4, 2016 in Wilmington, Ohio. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Backed by more than 50 progressive advocacy groups, dozens of House Democrats are urging President Joe Biden to issue an executive order to prevent the transfer of military-grade weaponry from the Pentagon to federal, tribal, state, and local police departments.

In a letter (pdf) sent to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, 29 lawmakers, led by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), argue that taking executive action to reform the Defense Department's 1033 program "is a reasonable step towards demilitarizing our police forces while preserving the safety of our communities."

"Decades of militarization of our nation's law enforcement have led to some police departments looking more like an occupying army than a community-based regulatory arm of state and local government," the lawmakers wrote.

Stephen Semler, cofounder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, highlighted the scale of the "military-to-police pipeline" in a Jacobin article published Tuesday: "Nearly $34 million in military equipment was sent to police in the first quarter of this year, according to the Pentagon's latest figures on the 1033 program. Since its inception in 1997, the program has been a conduit for at least $1.8 billion in combat gear shipments from the Department of Defense to U.S. law enforcement agencies."

"Not surprisingly," Semler added, "arming police to the teeth makes them more violent. Law enforcement agencies that get combat gear through the 1033 program tend to shoot and kill more people than ones that don't."

In their letter to Biden, the House Democrats noted that "the inappropriate use of such weapons is incentivized by a perverse requirement that to keep the equipment transferred under the 1033 program, the receiving agency must utilize it within one year or it must be returned to DOD."

Referring to the crackdown on nationwide protests against police violence that erupted last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the members of Congress wrote that "law enforcement's response to the civil rights demonstrations last summer show irrefutable proof of our police forces' increasing aggression and brutality—images of local police in military vehicles, with military-grade weaponry trained on citizens exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest."

"Our neighborhoods need to be protected, including from dangers posed by the militarization of police," they added. "This reasonable step falls squarely within your executive authority."

According to Semler:

Permanently abolishing this militarization pipeline requires an act of Congress. Specifically, legislation that strikes the authorizing statute for the program (10 U.S. Code § 2576a) would have to pass both chambers. But nothing is stopping President Biden from effectively shutting down the program right away. He could issue an executive order that not only halts 1033 transfers but also forces police to return past shipments, including the 335 helicopters, 1126 "MRAP" armored vehicles, 2,921 Humvees, and nearly 60,000 assault rifles currently loaned out by the Pentagon.

Biden was vice president the last time an executive order recalled military equipment obtained through the 1033 program from law enforcement agencies. By the time it was revoked by Trump, 126 tracked armored vehicles and 138 grenade launchers had been sent back from police to the Pentagon under Obama's Executive Order 13688.

Emphasizing that the Obama administration's 2015 restrictions on the 1033 program—rolled back in 2017 by the Trump administration—"stopped short of full reform," the Democrats' letter asks Biden to issue an executive order using the "same language" found in the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, a bill that Johnson introduced last month in the House.

While the legislation's provisions to ban the flow of certain military equipment to law enforcement agencies have already passed the House as part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, they now face an uphill battle in the Senate, which is why progressives are calling on Biden to incorporate the 1033-related changes into an executive order that can be invoked immediately.

Jodie Evans, cofounder of CodePink, a peace group that signed the letter, said in a statement that "curtailing the 1033 program is an important first step."

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But achieving racial justice, she said, requires "eliminating the 1033 program altogether" to protect the working-class communities of color that "bear the brunt of police brutality in this country."

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), one of the letter's signatories, "plans to introduce a bill next week that would completely repeal the 1033 program," according to The Hill, which obtained a draft of the legislation that she also introduced last year.

The 1033 program "is just one example of the many ways that our bloated Pentagon budget does nothing to create real safety and security in our society," said Carley Towne, co-director of CodePink and coordinator of its Defund the Pentagon campaign.

"It is absurd that the Pentagon has so much funding they can send their 'excess' weaponry to police departments around the country," she added. "We need to demilitarize our police and defund the Pentagon now."

Read the full letter:

Dear President Biden,

We write to urge you to issue an executive order to direct the Department of Defense to effectuate the revisions to the "1033 program" found in my legislation, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1694), introduced March 9, 2021 in the House of Representatives. My bill would codify commonsense reforms to prevent the transfer of certain excess Department of Defense (DOD) military-grade weaponry to federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. We believe that utilizing this same language in an executive order is a reasonable step towards demilitarizing our police forces while preserving the safety of our communities.

Decades of militarization of our nation’s law enforcement have led to some police departments looking more like an occupying army than a community-based regulatory arm of state and local government. To date, DOD has transferred more than $7.4 billion in excess military equipment to over 8,000 federal, tribal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. Law enforcement’s response to the civil rights demonstrations last summer show irrefutable proof of our police forces’ increasing aggression and brutality – images of local police in military vehicles, with military-grade weaponry trained on citizens exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest.

Studies have shown that the presence of military hardware in untrained hands increases the likelihood of negative outcomes. When a law enforcement officer is armed with a military-style weapon, they are simply more likely to use it. The inappropriate use of such weapons is incentivized by a perverse requirement that to keep the equipment transferred under the 1033 program, the receiving agency must utilize it within one year or it must be returned to DOD. This militarization of our police departments inherently decreases the trust that is crucial to the successful and necessary relationship between these agencies and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. This program instead blurs the line between local police and an occupying military force.

Although President Obama issued an executive order to limit the transfer of military weapons and equipment, it stopped short of full reform and was ultimately reversed by President Trump in 2017. We believe that the provisions of my bill, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, in the form of an executive order is a necessary step to implement commonsense reforms to the 1033 program. Only you, Mr. President, have the power to make this change immediately. 

The language in my legislation has already successfully passed the House as part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the 116th and 117th Congresses. It would prevent the transfer of equipment contrary to the safety purposes of local policing, such as military weaponry, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, weaponized drones, armored military vehicles, grenades and other explosives. It would also require recipients to certify that they can account for all military weapons and equipment. This bill would prohibit re-gifting from one agency to another and add much-needed requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that control transfers of the equipment.

During your campaign, you reiterated your commitment to stopping the transfer of weapons of war to local police forces. My legislation not only fixes what is broken but does so without compromising the integrity of the parts of the program that provide integral office and safety equipment to law enforcement agencies.

Our neighborhoods need to be protected, including from dangers posed by the militarization of police. This reasonable step falls squarely within your executive authority as President of the United States. We urge you to exercise this power immediately and sign an executive order that outlines the above before another small town is transformed into a war zone with gifts of grenade launchers and armored military vehicles. 

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