President Donald Trump plans to resume the transfer of surplus weapons, vehicles and other equipment from the nation’s military to its state and local law enforcement agencies, reviving a program which was sharply curtailed by President Barack Obama two years ago. The program launched in 1990 but was greatly limited after public reaction to images of heavily militarized police in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and other sites of civil unrest.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to announce the move Monday morning at the Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The police union has lobbied for the restoration of the program, and Trump said he would do so during his campaign. The decision was first reported by USA Today.
The transfer of extra weapons and gear from the Defense Department occurred through the “1033 Program” created by Congress in 1990, originally for use in drug enforcement by federal and state law enforcement. But in 1997, the program was expanded to include all law enforcement agencies, though with a preference for those with anti-drug or anti-terrorism programs. The White House said the 1033 program had resulted in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion worth of surplus military equipment to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, to include armored vehicles, riot gear, rifles, ammunition and computers that had been scrapped by the Defense Department. Police paid nothing more than transportation or shipping costs to get the equipment.
But during the civil unrest that erupted after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, many were troubled by scenes of oversized military vehicles and heavily armored police pointing high-powered rifles at protesters. The 1033 program received new scrutiny as public records showed how much military surplus had been distributed to local police nationally. In January 2015, President Obama created a working group to make recommendations to reform the program, which called for creating lists of “prohibited equipment” that could no longer be distributed to police and “controlled equipment” that could only be provided for a demonstrated need.
The “prohibited equipment” included tracked armored vehicles and weaponized vehicles of any kind, rifles and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, and grenade launchers. The “controlled equipment” included any specialized firearms, manned and unmanned aircraft, explosives and riot gear. In 2016, the government began recalling previously-issued surplus gear that had been placed on the prohibited equipment list.
In a background paper prepared by the White House, the Trump administration cites two articles published this month in the American Economic Journal which found that distributing military weapons and equipment to civilian law enforcement had “generally positive effects” and “reduced street-level crime.” One of the studies calculated that for every $5,800 in military aid given to law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, society saved about $112,000 in costs due to prevented crime.
The Trump administration also notes that armored vehicles and other military gear were used to protect the officers who killed the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and that a military-style helmet saved the life of an officer responding to the “Pulse” nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.
In announcing the reduction of the program, Obama said in 2015 that “militarized gear sometimes gives people a feeling like [police] are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them..Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments.”
The White House background paper said Trump’s decision to fully restore the program “represents a policy shift toward ensuring officers have the tools they need to reduce crime and keep their communities safe. It sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and makes officers more effective.”