How to Get Started on Rolling Back Police Militarization

Columbus-Swat-Protests (1)

The events across the United States since the heinous murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis have laid bare America’s fundamental flaws. Black Americans, and other Americans of color, are the victims of institutionalized and pervasive violence at the hands of their government. The historical record on this is unimpeachable. This violence prevents a significant proportion of our citizens from becoming equal members of the population and attaining the protections that equality affords.

But how do we fix this? Remedies are not easy to find or implement. One avenue to mitigate these defects in our society is to limit the capacity of the state to perpetrate this violence on its own people.  Despite some tepid attempts to control it after the events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the events of the last few days unequivocally show that police militarization continues apace — materially, culturally, and conceptually. Addressing militarization cannot fix the scourge of racism, but it could limit the tools by which racists can realize their goals. Slowing police militarization is not enough. It is time to roll it back.

Demilitarizing local police forces across America should be a central part of the Biden campaign’s platform. It seems unlikely at this juncture that the Trump administration would ever seriously consider such measures, leaving this to his successor, whether it is Joe Biden or someone else in 2024. Police militarization is both ineffective and widely unpopular across the political spectrum. If elected, Biden would have a significant mandate to fundamentally change the relationship of the police with the citizens they are ostensibly sworn to protect.



First and foremost, the next president should shut down the “1033 Program.” This authority, passed in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, but with roots in the late Reagan era of the “wars” on crime and drugs, has been the principal mechanism by which the federal government provides states and localities with military equipment. This authority permits the secretary of defense to transfer possession of excess equipment — but, importantly, not the legal ownership of that equipment — to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The program states that these should be mainly for counterterrorism, counter-drug, and border security operations. The laughability of the justifications for these transfers under these auspices is well documented.

Despite the unpopularity of police militarization, it is not clear that Congress would be able to pass a measure that rescinds the program. But in practice, the next administration could shut down the 1033 program administratively. At a minimum, the secretary of defense could stop processing requests or outright reject them. Short of the president ordering the program continued, the law does not compel the secretary to make the transfers. More than stopping new requests, the secretary could repossess all of the military equipment transferred to state and local forces. The law allows for this and it happens through the issuance of orders and memos. State and local police forces have no say in the matter, as when the Obama administration took this measure against some agencies.

After the events in Ferguson in 2014, much was written on this program, but only a fraction of the total equipment transferred under this authority was of a truly military nature. Military equipment would include helicopters, armor, armored vehicles, weapons, and weapons parts and accessories. Between 2006 and 2014, of the $1.6 billion worth of equipment transfers under the 1033 Program, only about $310 million worth was actually military equipment. The rest of the equipment was non-military in nature, such as mechanic tools, filing cabinets, computers, and gym equipment. We’ll return to this in a moment, but it is the military equipment that needs repossessing.

Because the program effectively deals with two sets of equipment, a policy rolling back militarization will have to deal with both, but durable military equipment is the acute problem. These are the weapons and tactical vehicles that local police forces use against protestors, and arguably affect their mindset to treat citizens as enemies to be controlled. Thanks to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, there are a number of bureaucratic hurdles for agencies to hold onto this equipment. It seems unlikely the Trump administration has maintained these standards. For no other reason, the next administration should reclaim this equipment because of the failure of receiving agencies to meet these standards.

The Biden campaign should immediately announce support for such a course of action and follow through if elected. It is time to proactively demilitarize local police departments, at a minimum and at once, of the machines of war that the Department of Defense provided to them free of charge. Only by retrieving these transfers can we as a nation truly have a conversation on what policing entails, on even and demilitarized footing with those that seek to control through violent coercion.

Police will not be left defenseless, as they claimed when Obama placed restrictions on the 1033 program. They would still have military equipment, just a lot less of it. To a certain extent, police forces can just purchase a wide variety of equipment from various sources, including the Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security runs a well-funded and expansive grant program — which should also be abolished — to support agencies buying military-style equipment. We do not know much about these programs and their direct effects on police capabilities in any individual locale. These will be harder to unwind and much of this work will take place at the state and local levels. However, taking back the 1033 military equipment is necessary and only the first step.

The second step is to address the non-military equipment gifted to state and local police forces. Between 2006 and 2014, over one billion dollars of 1033 equipment (about 95 percent of the number of items) was non-military in nature. As mentioned earlier, these items include mechanical shop and generic office equipment, among many other things. There is no particular reason why only police forces should be the sole recipients of this largesse of the federal government when it could be also be used for other civic purposes.

The Biden campaign should promise to also stop this free transfer of non-military equipment from the Department of Defense to state and local law enforcement agencies. Under Title 40 of the U.S. Code, the Defense Logistics Agency is authorized to transfer excess defense property to the General Services Administration. The same title authorizes the General Services Administration to donate excess government property to state agencies for distribution within their state for “promoting […] a public purpose, including conservation, economic development, education, parks and recreation, public health, and public safety.” There are other authorities for education, medical institutions, and the homeless.

As James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, wrote to The Atlantic, this president “does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” He seems equally uninterested in addressing the police militarization that facilitates police violence against non-white Americans — indeed, he has made militarization a priority. Today, right now, Joe Biden has the opportunity to position himself and his potential administration against the racism inherent in the current system. He should grab this moment in time by pledging to recall military equipment unwisely transferred to state and local police forces. Further, he should pledge to transfer excess non-military equipment to civilian state agencies for the public benefit. After the police are demilitarized, then we can have a proper conversation on their role in society.



Jason Fritz is a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. His research focuses on the politics of policing, political violence, and fragile states.

Image: Becker1999, Creative Commons