WASHINGTON >> The Senate today rejected a bipartisan bid to bar the Pentagon from transferring a wide range of military-grade weaponry to local police departments, effectively killing the last remaining initiative before Congress this year to address the excessive use of force in law enforcement.
With policing overhaul legislation stalled on Capitol Hill, the measure, which lawmakers sought to attach to the must-pass annual defense bill, was a last-ditch attempt to begin to demilitarize law enforcement after a nationwide uproar to address racial discrimination and distrust between the police and the communities they serve.
But despite the outcry in favor of sweeping changes, lawmakers declined to place limitations on some of the most controversial military-grade equipment provided to local police departments, rejecting a proposal by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, to prohibit such items as tear gas, grenades and bayonets.
The vote, 51-44, which failed to reach the required 60-vote threshold to pass, underscored how fraught and often fruitless attempts to rein in the program have become, allowing such matériel to flow to law enforcement in America’s cities and towns with few restrictions.
The Senate did approve a measure that would reinstate some restrictions originally imposed by the Obama administration and rolled back by President Donald Trump. That amendment, led by Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would prohibit the Pentagon from supplying law enforcement with tracked combat vehicles, drones that carry weaponry like tear gas and rubber bullets, and other equipment that the Defense Department has said it does not currently provide to local police departments. It would also require agencies that receive the equipment to undergo de-escalation training.
But the limits are unlikely to decrease the amount of military equipment that goes to police departments around the country or materially constrain the type of weapons made available to them. An analysis by The New York Times shows that despite President Barack Obama’s efforts to rein in the program after the killing of an unarmed Black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the restrictions did little to reduce the amount of weaponry available to local police departments through the program, known as 1033. Nor did Trump’s move to unravel Obama’s policies make a significant difference.
“Trump came in and said, ‘I have undone all the reforms,’ which in the first place hadn’t done anything, anyway,” said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied police militarization for decades. “There’s just been this whole political game done.
“Consequently,” he added, “the spigot has stayed on even post-Ferguson.”
Lawmakers in both parties, led by Schatz, announced their intention to restrict the program last month, after officers wearing riot gear were documented in cities across the country using pepper spray and rubber bullets on demonstrators protesting the killings of unarmed Black Americans by police, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked.
“The last month has made clear that weapons of war don’t belong in police departments,” Schatz said. “Our communities are not battlefields. The American people are not enemy combatants.”
Inhofe’s narrower measure, approved today in a 90-10 vote, was an attempt to head off Schatz’s more sweeping restrictions. Inhofe argued that the program was an “effective use of taxpayers’ money” but cast his amendment as “strong oversight of the program.”
“We want to make sure that the wrong kind of equipment doesn’t get in the hands of people who cannot properly use it,” Inhofe said.
The program, created by Congress in the early 1990s to offload surplus military equipment to local law enforcement to fight the war on drugs, has furnished more than $7.4 billion worth of supplies to police departments — mostly mundane items like coffee makers and socks, but also assault rifles and heavily armored trucks. Proponents argue that the program gives underfunded police departments access to crucial equipment to protect their officers that they would not otherwise be able to afford, and police unions for years have feverishly lobbied against attempts to curtail it.
It is just one of many federal initiatives that help police departments obtain weaponry and other equipment, but the program has singularly captured the attention of lawmakers.
“It just speaks so loudly to a direct causal connection between the U.S. military and the police,” said Kraska, who advised the Obama administration on the program. “The U.S. military is sending its war discards from Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing them to the streets of America.”
There has historically been little appetite in either party to legislate significant changes to the program. Even House Democrats, who included a measure targeting it in their policing overhaul bill, declined to allow a vote on adding such language, proposed by Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, to their version of the defense bill.
Johnson has tried without success to place restrictions on the program since 2013, after he marched in a Christmas parade in his district and was shocked to see the town’s mayor riding in a military-grade utility vehicle ahead of him. On the heels of the Ferguson protests, Johnson said, he hoped his colleagues would seize the moment and back his bipartisan bill, which would require local governments to sign off on the equipment before a police department tried to obtain it. But he found little support.
“I don’t think what people saw in Ferguson was a wake-up call,” Johnson said in an interview. “That picture of police officers with riot gear and helmets on and assault weapons and military vehicles — I don’t think people took note of it. I think they just assumed that’s the way policing is in America.”
Changes to the program instead have largely been mandated by presidential orders. Struck by images of heavily armed police officers in armored vehicles confronting unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Obama signed an executive order in 2015 prohibiting the transfer of certain weapons and equipment, including tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and camouflage uniforms. Even then, administration officials resisted more expansive changes, arguing that the program helped bulk up law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts. Even so, police unions condemned Obama’s restrictions as a threat to officer safety.
When Trump took office he rolled back the curbs, fulfilling a campaign promise he had made to the Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful national law enforcement union that for years had lobbied against restrictions to the program. Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, announced the move at the union’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. Trump heralded it as a significant change to military policy.
“You know, when you wanted to take over and you used military equipment — and they were saying you couldn’t do it — you know what I said? That was my first day: ‘You can do it,’ ” Trump told law enforcement officers in a 2017 speech. “In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast, we have none left.”
Some equipment that was banned by the Obama administration has since made it into the hands of local police officers following Trump’s rollback. The Cypress-Fairbanks police department in Texas serving a K-12 school district, for example, obtained 60 bayonet knives through the program in 2019, according to a Pentagon database. A spokeswoman for the school said in a statement to The Times that the bayonets “did not have functionality and are scheduled to be returned to the military.”
But a RAND Corp. study found in 2018 that the defense and state officials running the program “reported little change in operations or in the equipment” that police departments obtained from the program as a result of the executive order. And Pentagon officials overseeing it groused that many of the items that the Obama administration prohibited, like grenade launchers, had not been distributed through the program for years, anyway.
A spokeswoman for the Pentagon agency that oversees the program said Trump’s executive order had “minimal impact” on the program’s management, as did Obama’s, adding that many of the 2015 executive order requirements “already existed or were codified.”