The House of Representatives has voted down an amendment that would have placed restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
The amendment’s failure Thursday capped a week of lawmakers’ stunning refusal to make even modest reforms to address police brutality.
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), aimed to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows the military to transfer its “excess” property to police departments throughout the country. If passed, the amendment would have prohibited the transfer of certain kinds of combat gear — including firearms, military vehicles and aircraft — and required the military to recall some of what it had already given to cops.
“This is absolutely unacceptable and these Democrats that supported this provision twice in the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill should be held accountable for siding with police unions today rather than their own constituents who are calling to get weapons of war and military equipment off of our streets,” said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and progressive strategist who is part of a coalition effort to end the 1033 program.
The day before the vote, the National Fraternal Order of Police sent a letter to House leaders from both parties urging them to vote against Johnson’s amendment, falsely claiming the equipment sent to police is “demilitarized” and that there are no examples of the equipment being misused.
The language in Johnson’s amendment had already cleared the House as part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police accountability bill that died in the Senate earlier this week after bipartisan negotiations collapsed. The bill was named after the man whose murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year sparked nationwide protests.
More than a year after Floyd’s death, Congress has failed to make meaningful legislative changes to policing. Democrats have blamed Republicans for the stagnation, while also refusing to abolish the filibuster, which could potentially allow them to pass reform along party lines. With the collapse of the police accountability bill, the NDAA — considered must-pass legislation — was lawmakers’ best chance of addressing the 1033 program in the near future.
When President Joe Biden came into office earlier this year, he indicated he would sign an executive order on Jan. 26 reinstating President Barack Obama’s modest reforms to the 1033 program. But Jan. 26 came and went without the president taking any action on the issue. Days later, the National Association of Police Organizations suggested the outcome was a result of their lobbying efforts.
Under 1033, the military has sent more than $7 billion worth of equipment to police departments around the country. That includes 335 helicopters, 1,126 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, 2,921 Humvees, and nearly 60,000 assault rifles. In just the past year, about $90 million in military equipment has flowed from the military to the police. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the military is likely to soon have even more equipment to offload onto local law enforcement. As of July, the military had hauled 984 C-17 cargo plane loads of material out of Afghanistan.
Police departments that receive military equipment often claim they only use it in extreme, worst-case scenarios. But documents obtained by HuffPost earlier this year showed that police departments regularly request military equipment to respond to protests and for routine police tasks like making traffic stops, serving search warrants, or responding to threats of suicide or domestic violence. The documents also show that the Pentagon is quick to rubber-stamp these requests. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office created a fake federal agency to test the military’s safeguards on the transfer of its equipment to law enforcement agencies. The fake agency was able to obtain $1.2 million worth of equipment.
There is evidence this influx of military equipment makes police officers more violent: A 2017 study found a “positive and statistically significant relationship” between 1033 transfers and fatalities from shootings committed by police officers.
Getting rid of 1033 is popular among voters: A majority of Democrats and a plurality of Republicans support making it illegal for government agencies to transfer military weapons to police departments, a 2020 Data for Progress poll found.
Johnson’s amendment was one of four proposed amendments to the NDAA that sought to end or restrict 1033. The amendments offered a range of solutions, from a complete abolition of the program to narrower efforts to limit the transfers. Johnson’s amendment, which would have placed restrictions on the transfers but included some carveouts, was the only one to get a vote. Unlike some of the other amendments, Johnson’s amendment was explicitly retroactive, meaning the military would have been required to take back equipment that has already been sent to police departments.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has publicly supported efforts to reform 1033, but advocates familiar with the process say he has privately worked to protect vulnerable Democrats from having to vote on the issue.
After this story first published, Democratic committee spokesperson Monica Matoush told HuffPost in an email that Smith had “advocated with the Rules Committee to ensure the measure was included for floor consideration.” Smith voted for it and was “disappointed” that it failed, she added.
The amendment showdown was the latest in a yearslong effort to limit the transfer of military equipment to the police. Johnson has been introducing stand-alone legislation on the issue since 2014. After the police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Obama signed an executive order that imposed some limits on the program. The executive order prohibited the Pentagon from handing out certain types of equipment like weaponized aircraft and grenade launchers — which the Pentagon hadn’t given out since 1999. The order also required police who requested armored vehicles to submit a justification letter, a declaration that they were appropriately trained, and a declaration that their local governing body signed off on the request.
President Donald Trump reversed the ban on the transfer of certain types of equipment shortly after entering office. He couldn’t touch the paperwork requirements because Congress, by then, had passed them into law.
But the documents obtained by HuffPost show that paperwork isn’t much of a safeguard. Several agencies were able to certify they were appropriately trained to operate military equipment by writing “Yes” in response to the questions. And it doesn’t appear the Pentagon closely examined law enforcement’s justification letters. The sheriff of Boone County, Indiana — which is landlocked and more than 300 miles from the Canadian border — received an MRAP in 2019 after claiming to need the vehicle for “border patrol.”