President Trump has reversed restrictions his predecessor imposed about two years ago on what surplus military equipment the Department of Defense (DOD) can provide to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies under its 1033 program.
The change was first announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a national conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Aug. 28. He told a cheering audience that later that day, the president would sign an executive order overturning the executive order Obama had signed May 18, 2015.
Sessions told local law enforcers the action would ensure they could “get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job,” plus “send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become a new normal.”
Since 1990, federal law has authorized the transfer of surplus military equipment for free to federal and state law enforcement agencies. DOD’s 1033 program is run through the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) of the Defense Logistics Agency. Since its start, DOD’s 1033 program has brought about $6 billion to often cash-strapped law enforcement agencies.
Besides specifically military-use equipment, the 1033 program has also provided other items for law enforcement, such as riot shields, handcuffs, digital cameras, as well as office or exercise equipment, tool kits, tents, first aid kits, portable generators, tents, bedding and blankets.
But, nine months after rioting in Ferguson, Missouri following a policeman’s fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Obama’s executive order flatly barred some types of military surplus—weapon-carrying vehicles or aircraft, armored vehicles using tracks rather than wheels, grenade launchers, rifles and ammunition of .50 caliber or larger, bayonets and camouflage uniforms—from being provided to local law enforcers.
The Obama administration also said it recalled banned equipment from local law enforcers who had already received it. The Trump administration says it will return surplus military-grade armored vehicles and other weapons the Department of Defense furnished them under its 1033 program to local police departments in Maryland and Missouri; equipment which the Obama administration had taken back after it was used to control demonstrators protesting police brutality in Baltimore and Ferguson.
The Obama order also placed new restrictions on some other types of equipment, such as including requirements that agencies spell out in greater detail their need for the equipment, get advance approval from a local government body to obtain it, receive greater training, and keep more detailed records on its use. Examples of the surplus equipment for which those new restrictions would start included Humvees, drones, manned aircraft, explosives, battering rams, specialized firearms, riot batons, shields and helmets.
Trump’s action was hailed by many police groups and agencies, but decried by civil rights groups. The DOD program experienced embarrassing publicity in July, when the Congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reported the results of its sting operation to test DOD’s handling of the program.
GAO created a fictitious agency which submitted requests for surplus military equipment, some too sensitive for private use, and with no apparent attempt to verify the information in the application, in less than a week the agency provided $1.2 million in equipment. DOD now says it’s tightening up its 1033 procedures.
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.