In 2014, the ACLU reported that police departments in Arizona had collectively amassed a military arsenal that included: 712 rifles, 64 armored vehicles, 42 forced-entry tools, 32 bomb suits, 704 night-vision items, 830 units of surveillance equipment, and, in at least one department, “a .50 caliber machine gun that shoots bullets powerful enough to blast through the buildings on multiple city blocks.”
This magnitude of military-grade weaponry stock is not an anomaly. Across the country, more than 8,000 police departments have been able to gather such military equipment with ease and at no cost, through the 1033 Program, which allows the military to pass hand-me-down combat equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Once received, the government requires any sent equipment to be used in communities within a year, and this deployment has become one of the prime contributors to the militarization of local police.
Studies have shown that the use of this gear leads to more police violence and outsized targeting of communities of color. Now, as calls for broad police reform grow louder and louder, some members of Congress are calling for legislation to restrict or eliminate it altogether. The good thing is we have data to suggest the 1033 Program doesn’t lead to safer communities—as is often claimed.
Although data on policing is notoriously sparse, a study by Kenneth Lowande of the University of Michigan found that police department access to military equipment had “no detectable impact on violent crime or officer safety,” and concluded that “federal reforms designed to demilitarize local law enforcement would not have the downside risks suggested by proponents of military transfers.”
An earlier study also found that “more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police,” reported Ryan Welch in The Washington Post.
So, what are politicians proposing? On May 31, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii announced he’ll be proposing legislation, in the form of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, to “recalibrate” the 1033 Program. Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego has proposed a broader criminal justice reform package, including changes to the 1033 Program, which he calls “one of the most absurd programs in the United States government.”
While there’s still a long way to go to demilitarize police tactics and culture, not to mention institutional and systemic biases that need to be addressed, eliminating the 1033 Program would be a huge step in the right direction.