Defense

House Democrats to offer amendment to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police

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A pair of Democratic lawmakers is planning to introduce Wednesday an amendment aimed at restricting the transfer of military-grade weapons to local police departments.

Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) will offer the amendment when the House Armed Services Committee meets to consider its version of the annual defense policy bill, according to a copy of a letter supporting the amendment obtained exclusively by The Hill.

“This commonsense amendment, which has bipartisan support in Congress, would make our communities safer by getting weapons of war and military equipment off of our streets and out of our communities,” 90 organizations wrote in a letter to committee members Tuesday.

“Accordingly, we urge you to use the opportunity of the full committee markup of the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act to vote in favor of this amendment,” the letter added.

The letter was organized by a coalition called Demilitarize Our Communities. The signatories are largely on the left, such as MoveOn and the Center for American Progress, but also includes conservative organizations such as the R Street Institute.

The amendment is the latest salvo in a months-long effort to curb what’s known as the 1033 program.

The 1033 program allows the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment to U.S. police departments. Attention on the 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.

The amendment being introduced Wednesday mirrors a stand-alone bill that was introduced in the House earlier this year, which in turn mirrored language that was included in a sweeping police reform bill earlier this year and last year.

But bipartisan negotiations on a police reform bill that could pass the Senate have “stalled,” so advocates are now “aggressively focused” on tackling the 1033 program through the National Defense Authorization (NDAA), said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and progressive activist.

The lobbying campaign has included meeting with every Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee since the end of June, Taeb said.

Among the meetings was one with committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and his staff Aug. 20, she said. Taeb would not detail what was discussed, citing an agreement to keep the discussion off-the-record. 

Based on the lawmaker meetings, Taeb said she is “pretty confident” the amendment will pass the committee Wednesday.

The amendment 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.

“Military equipment is disproportionately deployed in communities of color,” the organizations wrote in their letter backing the amendment. “As recognized by former President Obama, decades of police militarization has led to [law enforcement agencies] appearing more like an occupying military force than community members working to protect and serve their neighbors.”

Even if the amendment makes it through the House, the NDAA must then be reconciled with the Senate before heading to the president’s desk for his signature.

The version of the NDAA passed last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee does not have similar language, but Taeb said advocates are working to get a vote on a similar amendment from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) when the defense bill comes to the Senate floor later this fall.

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 those restrictions in 2017.

President 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.

Days after the meeting with Smith, Taeb said, the White House reached out for a meeting after advocates were initially met with silence on their request for a talk.

The White House meeting happened this past week, Taeb said, adding she believes the administration “realizes that time is running out” on the congressional talks on police reform and could be more amenable to the “strong executive order” curtailing the 1033 program she and other advocates have been pushing for.

HASC NDAA1033amendment Signatories Final by Brandon Conradis on Scribd

Tags Adam Smith Barack Obama Brian Schatz Joe Biden Ro Khanna Veronica Escobar
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