Congress should demand greater transparency and oversight for law enforcement, not more militarization

A federal program that provides state and local police departments with military-grade surveillance equipment and tactical weapons lacks proper oversight and accountability mechanisms, according to Members of the House Armed Services Committee. A shocking assessment of the Pentagon’s 1033 program by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered the ease with which military weapons could be transferred into the wrong hands. After posing as a fake law enforcement agency, GAO officials requested and received $1.2 million in rifles, pipe bomb equipment, and night vision goggles through the 1033 program; which, according to the report, was “like getting stuff off of eBay.” The GAO also found that the DOD does not verify the identification of individuals picking up military equipment or the quantity of weapons transferred through the program.

OTG and our partners have highlighted the secrecy surrounding the Pentagon’s 1033 program as one of the core challenges facing criminal justice reform advocates seeking information for law enforcement accountability initiatives. For years, the DOD refused to disclose details on the program, until freedom of information advocates and journalists waged a campaign demanding transparency. After obtaining data from 37 states in response to information requests, the organization MuckRock forced the Pentagon to release its full agency-by-agency data-set on the 1033 program. MuckRock then teamed up with The Marshall Project to breakdown and report on the data, and created a search tool where people can get information on the type of equipment their local police and sheriffs receive through the program.

The controversial 1033 program was established by the FY 1997 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and has become associated with the increased militarization of security forces across the country. Concerns over police abuse led to former President Barack Obama issuing an executive order in January 2015, placing restrictions on the 1033 program and establishing oversight and training requirements for law enforcement agencies requesting the DOD equipment. That order also established a DOD, Department of Homeland Security, and Justice Department interagency working group to ensure oversight. However, there is no indication that any of the oversight mechanisms have been implemented and, as noted during the House oversight hearing last week, the DOD cannot confirm whether the working group has actually met.  

At a time when greater transparency and oversight is needed, some members of Congress want to make it even easier for military weapons and surveillance equipment to flow to law enforcement. The House NDAA for FY2018 included an amendment, introduced by Representative Poe (R-TX), that would provide state, federal and local law enforcement agencies with expedited and preferential treatment in securing drones, night vision goggles, and Humvees for border enforcement through the 1033 program. The Senate should reject such an amendment or risk perpetuating further militarization of law enforcement under the pretense of increasing public safety. Instead, Congress should take steps to enhance oversight and accountability for the police, by enacting the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, legislation that would place much needed restrictions and important transparency measures on the 1033 program.


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