Brawls during protests renew calls to halt police access to military weapons
A federal program restarted by President Donald Trump that has transferred billions of dollars of weapons and other military armaments to local police departments faces renewed scrutiny amid crackdowns by law enforcement on Americans protesting the death of George Floyd.
The government's 1033 Program transfers surplus equipment from the U.S. armed forces to civilian law enforcement agencies. Some of that gear goes to national agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, whose Denver unit in January received three riot suits, six padded shields and 23 batons, according to federal disclosures.
But much of the military equipment transferred through the program ends up in police departments across the country. In February, for instance, police in Patterson, Georgia, a city with a population of 730, was shipped a $950,000 portable combat simulator. The department will use the device to "make sure our officers are trained to the best standards," according to the application Patterson officials submitted to claim the simulator.
In all, more than $7 billion worth of military equipment has gone to around 8,000 civilian policing organizations under the 1033 program, according to government records. And the program is again drawing notice in Washington, D.C., fueled by reports of heavy-handed police tactics to suppress protests and enforce curfews.
Senator Brian Schatz on Monday introduced a measure to end the transfer of military equipment to local police forces. In a series of tweets, the Hawaii Democrat said "it is clear many police departments don't train and supervise for restraint and de-escalation, and some officers are just plain racist and violent."
The 1033 Program was launched in late 1997 and named for a section of the National Defense Authorization Act passed under President Bill Clinton. It expanded on a program started a decade earlier that allowed the transfer of military equipment to combat illegal drug trafficking.
The 1033 Program was initially only for counter-terrorism forces, but was eventually expanded to include any law enforcement activity. President Obama suspended the initiative in 2015 amid controversy over the police response to protests the previous year following an officer's fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Trump reinstated the program in August 2017.
A 2017 study by four professors, including one from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and another from Stanford's psychology department, found that participation in the 1033 Program appeared to cause to an increase in violence and killings by participating police departments.
A Rand Corporation study the following year found the program was "efficient and effective" at getting military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. But it also described a history of problems with internal controls, as well as a public perception that the program leads to more police violence. Another study earlier this year found no increase in crime after Obama suspended the program.
Many of the police departments involved in clashes with protesters in the past week used the 1033 Program. The Minnesota Department of Safety received 110 assault rifles from the program in 2004 and 2005, according to federal records that also list four "night vision sniper scopes" in 2013.
The Minneapolis Police Department is not listed as a participant in the program, but other local departments in the region have used it. For instance, the police department of Cottage Grove, Minnesota, which is 10 miles south of St. Paul, got $1.1 million worth of equipment in the first three months of this year alone. That included a $705,000 "mine-resistant vehicle" and a $120,000 robot that can be used for SWAT missions.
Elsewhere, the Louisville, Kentucky, police department also has participated in the 1033 Program over the years, receiving rifles in the mid-1990s and 32 "advanced combat helmets" in 2009, records show. Since Mr. Trump restarted the program three years ago, Louisville in 2018 also was shipped two $300,000 "ground vehicles." Earlier this week, the Louisville Police Department fired its chief after a police shooting during a protest resulted in the death of black store owner.
The Los Angeles Police Department has been one of the biggest users of the program over the years, including receiving 700 assault rifles in one shipment in 2011. Since Mr. Trump restarted the program, law enforcement agencies in the city and county there have received nearly $1.5 million in military equipment.
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