CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Months after the White House defended a federal program that distributed $18 billion worth of military equipment to local police, President Obama has now announced that he will ban the federal government from providing local police departments with tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms and large-caliber firearms. Obama also indicated that less heavy-duty equipment (armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear and specialized firearms and ammunition) will reportedly be subject to more regulations such as local government approval, and police being required to undergo more training and collect data on the equipment’s use.
Acknowledging that the ban is certainly a step in the right direction, constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead pointed out that it will do little to discourage police from using the arsenal of weapons already available to them, nor will it counteract the pervasive mindset that police are soldiers on a battlefield who can and should use any means necessary to maintain order.
“Unfortunately, we’re so far gone now that stopping the flow of military equipment to local police will not stop militarized police from acting like soldiers on a battlefield, which is how they have been trained to act. Therein lies the greater problem,” said Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning book Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Despite the steady hue and cry by government agencies about the need for more police, more sophisticated weaponry, and the difficulties of preserving the peace and maintaining security in our modern age, violent crime in America is at an all-time low.”
Congress launched the 1033 Program in the 1980s to allow the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military goods to state and local police agencies. The 1033 program has grown dramatically, with some 13,000 police agencies in all 50 states and four US territories currently participating. In 2012, the federal government transferred $546 million worth of property to state and local police agencies. This 1033 program allows small towns like Rising Star, Texas, with a population of 835 and only one full-time police officer, to acquire $3.2 million worth of goods and military gear from the federal government over the course of fourteen months. Military equipment sent to small towns has included high-powered weapons, assault vehicles and tactical gear. However, after it was discovered that local police agencies were failing to keep inventories of their acquired firearms and in some cases, selling the equipment for a profit, the transfer of firearms was temporarily suspended until October 2013. Police agencies have also been given a variety of other toys and gizmos, including “aircraft, boats, Humvees, body armor, weapon scopes, infrared imaging systems and night-vision goggles,” not to mention more general items such as “bookcases, hedge trimmers, telescopes, brassieres, golf carts, coffee makers and television sets.”
In addition to equipping police with militarized weapons and equipment, the government has also instituted an incentive program of sorts, the Byrne Formula Grant Program, which awards federal grants based upon “the number of overall arrests, the number of warrants served or the number of drug seizures.” A sizable chunk of taxpayer money has kept the program in full swing over the years. The Clinton administration funded the program with about $500 million. By 2008, the Bush administration had reduced the budget to about $170 million, less out of concern for the militarization of police forces and more to reduce federal influence on law enforcement matters. However, Obama boosted the program, using the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to inject $2 billion into the program. As a result of local police forces receiving militarized equipment and grants, heavily armed SWAT teams have also been increasingly used to carry out routine police procedures such as routine search warrants. Consequently, SWAT team raids, which once numbered a few thousand per year in the 1980s, have grown to over 80,000 per year.