Democrats, organizations push to end giving military-grade gear to police

Getty Images

A group of House Democrats is introducing a bill Thursday to repeal the program that allows the Pentagon to send excess equipment to local police departments.

More than 150 outside organizations are also sending a letter to lawmakers Thursday backing the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and co-sponsored by 17 other House Democrats.

“The 1033 program has contributed to a military-style police culture and has endangered countless lives, particularly in communities of color,” the 155 organizations wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill. “It is our assessment that the 1033 program is irreparable and should be abolished, especially in light of the fact that past attempts to reform the program were ineffective.”

The bill and the letter are the latest effort in a push to curtail the Pentagon’s ability to transfer military-grade weapons to U.S. police departments through what’s known as the 1033 Program.

“Demilitarizing the police is a crucial step towards the broader goals of ending institutional racism and stopping police brutality,” said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and progressive strategist who organized the letter. “Militarized policing supported by weapons of war has terrorized our communities, and in particular, our communities of color. We join millions of Americans across the country calling on Congress to shut down the 1033 program once and for all.” 

Last month, more than two dozen House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden urging him to sign an executive order placing limits on the program, and the month before that, lawmakers introduced a bill to restrict the program.

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 But the Trump administration rescinded those restrictions in 2017.

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

Limits on the program were included in a sweeping police reform bill the House passed earlier this year, but that legislation faces an uphill battle in getting the 60 votes needed to pass a Senate with a 50-50 party divide. Bipartisan negotiations on a compromise police reform bill have also hit stumbling blocks.

In their letter backing Velazquez’s bill to repeal 1033, the organizations argue the program has “caused immeasurable harm in communities across America” and “contributed to the rise of the warrior cop mentality against Black and Brown communities.”

The letter specifically highlighted reports that at least 17 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles obtained through the program were deployed during last summer’s racial justice protests in response to George Floyd’s murder.

The letter also argued the program has been “notoriously mismanaged through the years,” citing a 2017 Government Accountability Office report in which the watchdog was able to obtain $1.2 million worth of military equipment for a fictitious police department.

“For more than 20 years, the 1033 Program has sustained and promoted a military-like culture in U.S. law enforcement, the brunt of which has been felt in communities of color,” said Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, which backed the letter. “We know that the increased transfer of military equipment through the 1033 Program increases the number of police killings, particularly in the context of the drug war and SWAT raids, and that the program has been grossly mismanaged over the years. To truly achieve public safety and save lives, Congress must abolish 1033.”

Tags Joe Biden Law enforcement Nydia Velazquez police brutality Transfer of military-grade equipment to police departments
See all Hill.TV See all Video