With the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) now in conference committee, Congress should ensure that the final bill includes critically important reforms to the “1033” program. As my colleagues and Army veterans Bishop Garrison, Ben Haas, and Chris Purdy have previously highlighted, this program—which provides excess Department of Defense (DoD) equipment to law enforcement—blurs the line between the military and law enforcement. Worse, it undermines public safety.
Congress is, of course, considering long-overdue reforms to this program in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. When millions in America and across the world demonstrated against police brutality and systemic racism, they were demanding justice and accountability for the countless number of unarmed Black people who have been killed by law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies responded to these demonstrations in cities across our country by filling American streets with armored vehicles, assault weapons, and other military-grade equipment as if they were working in warzones. Police are sworn to protect and serve their communities, yet they continue to treat some American citizens as enemy combatants.
Militarized policing disproportionately impacts communities of color. Research indicates that militarized police units are more likely to be deployed to communities of color, even areas that have low rates of crime. Further, the evidence shows that police militarization—fueled and exacerbated by the 1033 program—directly leads to an increase in police violence and an erosion of public trust in police. And as noted by Human Rights First’s President and CEO Mike Breen and Representative Anthony Brown (D-MD)—both of whom are Army veterans—this trend also risks undermining public support for the military.
Reforms to the 1033 program have garnered bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. In the Senate, a provision reforming the program offered by Senate Armed Services Chairman Inhofe (R-OK) as an amendment to the NDAA passed in an overwhelming and bipartisan vote of 90-10. In the House, more comprehensive reforms of the program were incorporated in the Justice in Policing Act, which passed with bipartisan support by a 236-181 vote.
Given this support in both chambers, a final conference report should—at a minimum—hold the Senate position on 1033. This provision, while not comprehensive, is a necessary and important starting point for achieving reforms that will lay the groundwork for Congress to enact more meaningful restrictions on the program and implement additional oversight and accountability measures.
Going forward, Congress should look for pathways to address other factors that militarize domestic law enforcement. As Human Rights First has outlined, the demilitarization of law enforcement should include reforming the DHS grant programs that allow law enforcement to obtain military-grade weapons, ending the military’s role in immigration enforcement, and supporting training programs designed to demilitarize and promote racial justice within law enforcement agencies themselves.