The Trump administration last week rescinded President Obama’s Executive Order 13688, which restricted the transfer of military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies in response to concerns about the excessive militarization of civilian policing in the United States.
In 1989, Congress created the “1033 program” to assist police in fighting the “war on drugs” by authorizing the Department of Defense to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement agencies; in 1996, the program was made permanent and its scope expanded to include all local law enforcement operations, especially counterterrorism. Since then, with very little oversight, more than $5 billion in equipment has been transferred to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, free of charge, provided that they use it within one year of receipt.
The ACLU in 2014 documented a total of 15,054 items of battle uniforms or personal protective equipment received by 63 agencies across the country and estimated that 500 law enforcement agencies had received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles (built to withstand roadside bombs) through the 1033 program. It also reported that the use of SWAT and other paramilitary teams escalated from 3000 raids per year in the 1980s to 45,000 in the mid-2000s. By the mid-2000s, 90 percent of larger cities and 80 percent of small towns had SWAT teams, which were deployed 80 percent of the time not in hostage or crisis situations but to execute search warrants, typically in drug investigations, and often with tragic results. Researchers further observed that the use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily and disproportionately impacted people of color.
After police in Ferguson, Missouri, used military equipment in response to protestors in August 2015, President Obama issued Executive Order 13688, creating an interagency working group to improve coordination and oversight, and removing bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, and grenade launchers from the 1033 program. “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” President Obama said in announcing the order, which permitted the limited use of other surplus — aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command units, battering rams and riot gear — on the condition that the equipment was approved by the federal government.
Before E.O. 13688, there were over 12,000 Pentagon-issued bayonets spread across more than 170 counties across the nation, according to a Marshall Project review of Department of Defense data from 2006 to 2014. Police used bayonets during the civil rights era against African American marchers, and today Alabama law enforcement agencies continue to carry bayonets received through the 1033 program.
The Trump administration’s action will increase the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies by removing E.O. 13688’s oversight and restrictions on certain types of gear. Local police again will be able to obtain rocket-launchers and bayonets free of charge, so long as they promise to use them.