The Pentagon’s controversial program that fuels police forces with surplus weapons of war is mired in secrecy and lacks sufficient oversight. This aspect of the initiative has not improved since government watchdog investigators posed as fake cops last year to expose just how easily the dangerous weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Thankfully, some members of Congress are now taking critical steps to increase transparency for the program.
Open the Government has raised public awareness about the opaque transfers of the Defense Department’s weapons to police and urged members of Congress to push for stronger reporting requirements for the program. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently led the way to ensure that important transparency requirements were included in Pentagon’s funding bill for FY 2019. These provisions help counter the policy changes made by President Trump last year, when he stripped away a handful of restrictions and accountability measures put into place under the Obama Administration.
President Trump continues to defend his decision to rollback limits on the program and recently delivered remarks joking about the militarization of police resulting from the Pentagon’s weapons transfers. In a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, President Trump said his administration has been allowing police to access surplus military equipment “since the very first day” and mocked critics of the program, saying opponents didn’t like that the program made police look “too tough,” and wasn’t a “good look.” “You have people shooting at you,” the President said, “and they’re worried about your look.”
Contrary to the president’s statements, critics point out that this program not only creates bad optics, but it has increased intimidation against protesters, chilling free speech and expression. Since its creation in 1997, the Pentagon has distributed over $6 billion worth of hardware to over 8,000 police departments. Growing concerns over police abuse led to the Obama Administration establishing oversight and training requirements for law enforcement agencies requesting the DOD equipment. Last year, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions suspended the restrictions, opening up the floodgates of military weapons to again flow into the hands of police to use in the streets.
Now, Congress is working to ensure that the surplus weapons program is monitored, and is pusing for the public to have a better understanding of its scope, implementation, and impact. Importantly, some lawmakers are taking further steps to enhance oversight and accountability for the police, and are supporting the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (S. 1856) – bipartisan legislation that would start de-militarizing civilian police forces across the country.
Read more from OTG on the Pentagon’s surplus weapons program and police militarization: