House Democrats push Biden to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police

House Democrats push Biden to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police
© Greg Nash

More than two dozen House Democrats are pushing President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE to issue an executive order banning the transfer of military-grade weapons to local police departments.

In a letter to be sent to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, the lawmakers, led by Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonHouse ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience Jackson Lee is third CBC member in three weeks to be arrested protesting for voting rights 'Good Trouble': Black caucus embraces civil disobedience MORE (D-Ga.), argue an executive order is “a reasonable step towards demilitarizing our police forces while preserving the safety of our communities.”

“Decades of militarization of our nation’s law enforcement have led to some police departments looking more like an occupying army than a community-based regulatory arm of state and local government,” the 29 Democrats wrote in the letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Hill.

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“Our neighborhoods need to be protected, including from dangers posed by the militarization of police,” they added. “This reasonable step falls squarely within your executive authority as president of the United States.”

The letter specifically asks Biden to issue an executive order mirroring language in a bill Johnson introduced last month.

Johnson’s bill would place broad restrictions on what’s known as the 1033 program, which allows the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment to U.S. police departments.

Democrats’ letter is the latest step in a campaign to push Biden on the issue. In addition to the letter and Johnson’s bill, Rep. Nydia VelazquezNydia Margarita VelasquezDemocrat slams Yellen for failing to appear at hearing Democrats, organizations push to end giving military-grade gear to police Biden announces more diverse judicial nominees, including George W. Bush-nominated judge MORE (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce a bill next week that would completely repeal the 1033 program, according to a draft of the bill obtained by The Hill.

Attention on the 1033 program was renewed last year amid the nationwide protests over police violence and racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.

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“Law enforcement’s response to the civil rights demonstrations last summer show irrefutable proof of our police forces’ increasing aggression and brutality – images of local police in military vehicles, with military-grade weaponry trained on citizens exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest,” Democrats wrote in their letter.

Former President Obama curtailed the 1033 program in 2015 after local police suppressed protests in Ferguson, Mo., using military-grade equipment. But the Trump administration rescinded the restrictions in 2017.

Biden had been expected to reimpose the Obama-era limits on the program as one of the dozens of executive orders he issued in the first weeks of his presidency, but no such directive materialized.

A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the idea of an executive order mirroring Johnson’s bill or whether the president still plans to reimpose the Obama-era limits.

The Democrats’ letter Tuesday urges Biden to go further than the limits imposed during the Obama administration, saying they “stopped short of full reform.”

Johnson’s bill would prohibit the Pentagon from sending police departments controlled firearms, ammunition, bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades including stun and flash-bang grenades, explosives, certain controlled vehicles including mine-resistant vehicles, armored or weaponized drones, combat-configured or combat-coded aircraft, silencers and long-range acoustic devices.

The same language was included in a sweeping police reform bill the House passed last month. But that legislation, dubbed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, faces an uphill battle in getting the 60 votes needed to pass a Senate with a 50-50 party divide.

The letter argues Johnson’s bill “not only fixes what is broken but does so without compromising the integrity of the parts of the program that provide integral office and safety equipment to law enforcement agencies.”

“We believe that the provisions of my bill, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, in the form of an executive order is a necessary step to implement common sense reforms to the 1033 program,” the lawmakers wrote. “Only you, Mr. President, have the power to make this change immediately.”