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Holding the Government Accountable

Police Access to Military Equipment Needs More Oversight, Not Less

Police forces fire tear gas grenades from an armored vehicle in Ferguson, MO, August 17, 2014. (Photo: loavesofbread / Wikimedia Commons)

The Trump administration is removing restrictions–including important oversight measures–on a program that puts surplus military gear into the hands of state and local law enforcement agencies. The new policy was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions Monday during a speech at the national conference of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Yet a Project on Government Oversight (POGO) analysis shows equipment transfers via the 1033 Program were already on the rise in the Trump administration even before restrictions were lifted, and a government watchdog report showed the program is in need of more checks, not fewer.

Under the 1033 program, more than $6 billion worth of gear has made it into the hands of state and local police departments, as well as federal law enforcement partners, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. However, the program was put under a microscope in 2014 after the militarized and heavy-handed response of law enforcement to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

In January 2015, President Obama issued an executive order that set up an interagency Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group to review policies related to the 1033 Program and similar surplus giveaways. The group, working with stakeholders including local sheriff and police departments, came up with a list of recommendations, which the Obama administration accepted. Among those recommendations were a ban on using the program to transfer certain items–including bayonets, grenade launchers, and high-caliber ammunition–and new limits on the transfer of other kinds of equipment.

The recommendations also included accountability measures, such as the creation of a permanent version of the working group, auditing requirements, and policies aimed at ensuring the suitability of the gear for the intended recipient. For example, law enforcement would need approval from local governments–like the mayor or city council–before it could receive controlled equipment.

On Monday Trump, signed an executive order permitting federal agencies to ignore all of these recommendations.

“Those restrictions went too far,” Sessions said during his speech. Sessions did not explain why the recommendations needed to be rolled back, except for dismissing the basis for reforms as “superficial concerns.”

Missouri State Highway Patrol in Ferguson, MO.
(Photo: loavesofbread / Wikimedia Commons)

Despite those restrictions, the program gave away more gear during the first few months of the Trump administration than during the same time period the previous year. From January 20 through June 30, 2017 the program distributed more than $203 million worth of gear, according to a POGO analysis of publicly available 1033 Program data. That amounts to a nearly 56 percent increase over the same timeframe in 2016.

And, in some cases, it seems like it has actually been too easy to get equipment through the program. This summer, the Justice Department brought a criminal wire fraud charge against a former county deputy sheriff in Kentucky for an alleged scheme in effect between 2011 and 2014 where he got things like an ATV and an industrial ice maker via the 1033 program and used them for personal gain.

Also this summer, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlighted significant accountability problems with the 1033 Program. To test the system, government investigators made up a fictional federal law enforcement agency and tried to enroll in the program. The fake agency was approved and received $1.2 million worth of controlled items, including night-vision goggles, simulated rifles, and simulated pipe bombs, demonstrating flaws in the program’s verification processes.

GAO’s findings are a good reason why the 1033 Program needs more scrutiny, and to its credit, the Defense Department promises it is taking action to address the problems the report uncovered. But rolling back the recommendations that resulted from Obama’s executive order does the exact opposite–giving a program with a demonstrated need for more oversight even less of it.

Some on Capitol Hill have already voiced concerns about the administration’s decision, including at least one member of the President’s own party, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who issued a statement objecting to the changes.

In 2014, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) —now the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department—said that the 1033 program can be beneficial when implemented "with appropriate safeguards, oversight and training in place, and with the utmost concern and care for the community." He added that "when the equipment is used without the proper consideration for the community, it can cause even more problems.”