U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from DeKalb County, has introduced legislation that would dial back a federal program that transfers military equipment and resources to local law enforcement agencies.
The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act has already gained some bipartisan support in an otherwise politically fractured Congress.
“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I would welcome a hearing on this issue as soon as is feasible,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Gainesville.
Johnson, moreover, is co-sponsoring the bill with three Republican colleagues.
In the works for some time, the bill got its traction on the heels of recent street demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., where protesters clashed with local police after the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.
County and city police dispersed crowds night after night with tear gas, less-lethal ammunition and sound devices.
The widely perceived heavy-handed response of authorities, particularly given their camouflage uniforms, sniper rifles and armored Humvees, shocked Americans.
In the aftermath, people began to wonder why local police resembled the nation’s elite fighting forces in Afghanistan.
The answer lies with the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program.
That program has transferred more than $5 billion of military property to local and state agencies since 1997.
Last year alone, about $450 million in equipment was distributed to local law enforcement.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office received M16 rifles in 2006 and 2008 through the program, while the Gainesville Police Department received M14 rifles in 2006 and M16s in 2011.
The legislation Johnson is pushing would prohibit the transfer of high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles and various explosives through the federal program.
It would also remove a requirement that any military gear transferred to local police be used within a year, something Johnson calls an incentive for police to misuse equipment.
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said in a statement. “Before another small town’s police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized police.”
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch, who called the police response in Ferguson a “disgrace,” said many of the prohibitions outlined in the bill would not impact his agency because it does not have drones, grenades or acoustic devices, for example.
However, the sheriff’s office does employ an armored vehicle, known as a BearCat, when dealing with certain SWAT scenarios, such as a hostage or active-shooter situation.
“I clearly understand the mission objectives are completely different between law enforcement and the military,” Couch said, adding that police protect and defend, while the military is typically on the offensive.
Couch said the best way to ensure transfers of military equipment to local law enforcement do not become excessive or counterproductive is to define a “clearly established need” for each piece of equipment and set policies governing the use of military resources.
“I could see agencies across the country that might abuse or misuse (military resources),” Couch said, “but that’s why we need to have the policies in place.”