In his first speech as attorney general last month Jeff Sessions signaled that he intends to “pull back” on federal oversight of local law enforcement, reversing course on a key police reform strategy of the Obama administration. “We need, so far as we can, in my view, help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,” said Sessions in remarks to the National Association of Attorneys General.
In January 2017, Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-TX) introduced a bill would make it easier for local police to get their hands on surplus military equipment. The bill now has 16 co-sponsors in the House and was referred last month to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.
Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense (DOD) has been giving away excess gear through a federal program known as 1033. Most of the equipment is fairly mundane—office computers, treadmills and the like—but 1033 also makes weapons and tactical vehicles available to local police for just the cost of shipping. The program became the subject of nationwide scrutiny in 2014, when police used rifles and armored vehicles to confront protesters in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown.
Growing concern over police militarization led President Obama to announce, the following year, that law enforcement agencies would be banned from receiving certain items—including armed helicopters, grenade launchers and tracked armored vehicles—through federal programs. A new set of guidelines also designated gear such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), 15-ton vehicles that can withstand roadside bombs, as “controlled” items subject to additional restrictions. The restrictions apply to the 1033 program, as well as programs administered by federal agencies such as the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, which also provide support to local law enforcement through grants or excess equipment transfers.
The “Protecting Lives Using Surplus Equipment (PLUS) Act” would essentially undo Obama’s 2015 executive order, which is deeply unpopular among law enforcement associations and police unions.