Trump Resumes Program to Arm Police with Military Weapons [UPDATED]

Posted on September 1, 2017

UPDATE (9/5/17): In a speech at a conference of the National Fraternal Order of Police held last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions emphatically defended the Justice Department’s move to reinstate the 1033 program. Among the many arguments he offered, one contention in support of resuming the program, which provides military equipment to local law enforcement, was that military equipment deployed by police was instrumental in the rescue efforts in Houston following hurricane Harvey. It is certainly true that the Houston Police Department, in its effort to meet the immediate and overwhelming need, deployed its MRAP explosive-resistant tactical vehicles, but this is more a reflection of how thinly the department’s resources were stretched than how optimal such equipment is for peacetime rescue efforts. Some models of MRAP, or “Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected,” vehicles feature waterproof alternators and starters, but these are not sufficient to optimize them for flood conditions, such as those in Houston post-Harvey–not only have they proven particularly prone to rollover but in at least one rollover case, an MRAP became trapped in a canal, submerging the interior and subsequently killing the occupants. 

A far more effective measure for ensuring emergency readiness would be to diversify and expand police departments’ non-military special units. The Houston Police Department has a small Marine Unit which, if furnished with more funding, could easily acquire more light patrol craft. These would not only be of significantly greater help to the department in flood conditions but, as they are not military-grade vehicles, would also be less susceptible to abuse. 

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A new piece from The New York Times reports that the US Department of Justice has reintroduced a policy which supplies local law enforcement with military-grade weapons and equipment. The so-called 1033 program, which was shuttered under Obama but resumed by Trump’s Department of Justice this week, allows the federal government to transfer U.S.military unused or surplus equipment to local police departments around the country for free.  Over a billion dollars worth of such equipment has already been handed out to willing police departments – some of which have discovered to their chagrin that maintenance costs of “freebies” like helicopters can exceed annual budgets.

President Obama initially terminated the program in response to concern over police misuse after the shocking deployment of armored vehicles and assault weapons in response to anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Many police accountability activists expressed concern that weapons and vehicles designed for war zones were deployed on American streets merely for the purposes of managing public demonstrations, only some of which turned violent. Pressure from these campaigners and other civil libertarians culminated in President Obama’s dramatic restriction of the program.

The reinstatement of the 1033 program is concerning enough on its own, but as protests are increasingly met with force by police departments emboldened to overstep department protocol by President Trump, the move takes on particular and ominous significance. While there are undoubtedly times of grave public emergency requiring exceptional police response, the 1033 program supplied weapons (such as grenade launchers and bayonets) which are plainly unnecessary in even the most extreme circumstances.

Even non-lethal hardware can lead to police abuse and grievously damage relations with communities. The Chicago Police Department in 2015 used a stingray surveillance device to intercept the private data of a peaceful protester, and while regulations have since been signed into state law governing the use of such devices, this proves that local police are certainly willing to use sophisticated military equipment without reasonable cause. Nor is local law enforcement reluctant to cross other boundaries in applying unprecedented force in policing. In July of last year, police in Dallas used a remote controlled robot to remotely detonate an explosive and kill a criminal suspect.

As much of the military equipment made newly available to police through the 1033 program has seen little domestic use, it is left up to police departments increasingly under fire for abusive tactics to decide when and how to deploy them. Empowering local police departments, which have already been shown to routinely exceed department protocols, with military weapons which they don’t need to do their job in the vast majority of cases (if at all) only needlessly courts abuse. 

You can read the full story from The New York Times here

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.