This commentary originally appeared in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on September 1, 2015.
An officer straps up a tactical vest, loads his M-4, hops in an armored vehicle and gets ready for another day on the job. You are probably envisioning this scene somewhere in the streets of Baghdad. However, thanks to the Department of Defense, this description could easily describe a school district employee.
The 1033 Program, a part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, allows the secretary of Defense to provide civilian law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies (including school districts) have applied for, and received weapons, tactical gear, armored vehicles and plating. It is estimated that the 1033 Program transferred more than $5.1 billion in equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
Recently, the program has come under scrutiny in the wake of civil unrest around the country. It is concerning that this military-style equipment likely leads to unnecessary escalation and fosters a war zone-like environment.
The concept of separating our military force from our domestic law enforcement has been around since America’s infancy. Under the 1033 Program, however, domestic law enforcement is equipped in a manner that blurs the lines between civilian and military. This is extremely problematic, especially considering the lack of transparency and accountability involved. It takes years of training for our armed forces to be considered ready to use military grade weaponry on the battlefield, but we do not ask for even minor instructional requirements for police at home. Moreover, any law enforcement agency can receive this property, including school districts. It is hard to justify the appropriateness of a school officer possessing military weapons to police a school.
Recently, the administration announced banning the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, armed aircraft, bayonets, as well as .50-caliber or higher guns and ammunition. The directive also recommended training and reporting requirements for other military equipment as well as requiring approval from a local governing body prior to transfer of this property. Although the appropriateness of using a directive such as this to place limitations on an act of Congress is a debate for another day, the actual policy appears to be largely for show. A Pentagon spokesperson stated that all the items banned by the executive order are either not provided by the Department of Defense or have not been transferred in many years. Further, the training, reporting and accountability requirements are far too vague and have the potential to be a “paper dragon.” Further steps are necessary to ensure that the program has proper oversight and accountability.
First, greater accountability for misuse of equipment should have been included in the directive. Specifically, if the equipment is used in ways that do not match their application, then the agency should lose their rights to the equipment and be audited.
Second, the directive only requires agencies to “collect and retain certain information whenever such equipment is involved in a significant incident.” This reporting requirement should be more proactive. Law enforcement agencies should report what they asked for, what they received, when they used it and for what purposes. Greater transparency as to how this property is used will reduce the chance it will be used inappropriately.
Third, the training requirements included in the directive still allows for any law enforcement agency to obtain this property. Some agencies, specifically law enforcement for schools, should not be allowed to obtain military weapons in any situation. Fourth, the statute should be amended to only allow transfer of weaponry in very few situations where military equipment could be valuable to local law enforcement, such as domestic terrorism.
Safety is always of the utmost importance and that is why the 1033 Program was put into place. However, just as with many well-intentioned missions, this one has gone too far and is threatening to encroach on our civil liberties. It’s time to use some common sense and to establish needed safeguards on this program.
Greg Glod is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.