The United States narrowly averted the deployment of active-duty service members in America’s streets and communities during the recent protests for racial justice. But to the casual observer, and at times even to Army veterans like us, the difference between law enforcement officers and military troops was hardly discernible: the law enforcement personnel responding to even peaceful demonstrations often wore fatigues or otherwise intimidating tactical uniforms, were armed to the teeth with weapons, and were at times flanked by military-style vehicles nearby.
This blurred line between law enforcement and the military is due in part to a decades-old program — frequently referred to as the “1033 program” — that has made the weapons and equipment of war available essentially free of charge to law enforcement agencies across the United States. Congress now has a crucial opportunity to reform the Department of Defense 1033 program and help demilitarize law enforcement, as part of the legislative process for the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The trend of militarizing law enforcement not only undermines public safety and policing but also erodes democratic norms and the relationship between society and the military. And the striking images in recent months and years of military weapons and equipment being marshalled against minorities, marginalized communities, and protesters have made it increasingly clear that there is an urgent need for change.
The three of us understand — and in some cases have seen first-hand in war — the damage that the military’s weapons can inflict. Collectively, we have conducted missions in Iraq using Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which resemble tanks; performed intelligence work in Afghanistan so that armed aircraft could target enemies; and, equipped with a grenade launcher, patrolled the streets of Iraq in many of the same armored vehicles that public safety officers use today in American communities.
But American communities are not a battlefield. Our fellow citizens are not enemies. And the weapons of war do not belong in our streets.
Billions of Dollars in Military Equipment with Bad Results
The 1033 program, however, continues to pump Defense Department weapons and equipment into the hands of law enforcement. Since its establishment in the late 1990s, the program has transferred more than $7.4 billion worth of excess military equipment, such as bayonets, rifles, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The transfers occur at no cost to the receiving police departments except shipping. Military equipment has been transferred to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies, and the ones most inclined to seek heavy equipment through the program have been those in small communities and rural areas.
Local police departments are not the only recipients — Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Protection, both of which were involved in recent protest responses, are substantial beneficiaries. The program has historically been plagued by oversight and accountability issues. A few years ago, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was able to create a bogus law enforcement organization and procure more than 100 items, which amounted to a value of approximately $1.2 million, through the program. “It was like getting stuff off of eBay,” a GAO official said.
This program, without meaningful restrictions, carries immense risk. Consider first how the flow of war supplies to America’s communities is bad, as a pragmatic matter, for communities and for policing. One study found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings.” In this respect, the 1033 program is outright dangerous. But even aside from this alarming consideration, other research indicates that militarized law enforcement not only “fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime” but also “may diminish police reputation in the mass public.” At best, then, programs that militarize police are ineffective and undermine the very police forces they are meant to support. As the nation contemplates ways to recalibrate policing so that it can better serve communities, these realities should be top of mind.
The mixing of weapons and equipment of war with law enforcement functions is also unhealthy for democracy and civil-military relations. Most fundamentally, police simply should not maintain a war-like posture against communities they are sworn to serve and protect. This is a practice that brings to mind authoritarian countries where the military is marshalled against its own people to suppress human rights. These approaches in other countries have traditionally drawn rebuke from the United States, and their images must not be replicated in American communities. In addition, by making it ever more difficult for communities to distinguish between law enforcement and the military, the proliferation of military weapons and equipment among law enforcement threatens the country’s currently high public trust in the armed forces.
The American desire to maintain a separation between the military and law enforcement is underscored by the fact that, however abhorrent the motives were at the inception of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act (it was intended to stop the federal government from using the military to help enforce federal Reconstruction laws in former Confederate states), it has long served — with certain exceptions — as an important statutory barrier to prevent the military from engaging in law enforcement activity. Funneling the weapons and equipment of war into law enforcement entities, however, subverts and erodes the spirit of this law.
Bipartisan, Public Support for Meaningful Reform
The 1033 program is clearly in dire need of reform, and change via legislation would be ideal, delivering the durability of preventing reversal by executive order. Fortunately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are now considering ways to reform it through the NDAA.
In particular, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) has introduced a bipartisan amendment with Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rand Paul (R-KY). If passed, the amendment would prohibit the transfer of, among other items, bayonets, grenades, grenade launchers, certain high-caliber firearms and ammunition, tracked combat vehicles, weaponized drones, and asphyxiating gases. It also includes provisions that would help prevent the use of equipment provided through the program against peaceful protests and that would institute much-needed transparency and accountability measures. House lawmakers, too, have an opportunity in the NDAA process to pass essential 1033 reform. Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-GA) Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which the House previously passed with bipartisan support as part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, has been introduced as an NDAA amendment.
The bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for 1033 reform is encouraging, but perhaps not surprising, given the widespread public support for addressing racial injustice and heavy-handed policing. More than 90 non-governmental organizations have called for ending the 1033 program, and dozens — including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership — have specifically endorsed the Schatz amendment. Public polling, moreover, shows that a majority of Americans support curtailing the program.
Now, with this enthusiasm in place, it is up to Congress to follow through and help stem America’s drift toward further law enforcement militarization. Lawmakers must vote in favor of reform.
(Editor’s note: Based on a newly revised list of endorsements, this article was updated July 15 to delete one of two organizations specifically named as having endorsed the Schatz-Murkowski-Harris-Paul legislation.)