Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Houston-area police departments are using the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey to justify increasing the ability of local law enforcement to access military weaponry and vehicles. The public relations effort comes after President Donald Trump revived the Department of Defense’s controversial 1033 Program that supplies local law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment. Items available to local police under the 1033 Program include tanks; automatic rifles; grenade launchers; bayonets; armored personnel carriers; and surveillance technology including Stingray devices that intercept and track cell phone traffic without a warrant.
The 1033 Program originated during the Clinton Administration as a means by which the Pentagon could dispose of surplus military equipment by providing it to local law enforcement to further the endless war on drugs. It allows local police departments to acquire equipment free of charge and has been defended by law enforcement officials as a way to stretch their budgets.
Houston-area police singled out the use of armored military vehicles in rescuing flood victims following the storm. However, as the Houston Chronicle noted, many of the military vehicles acquired by the police were not able to be used in the flood waters due to concerns about the impact of high water on the vehicles’ electrical systems and the potential to render them inoperable.
High water rescue vehicles, such as those owned and used by the Houston Fire and Police Departments during the emergency, present a more effective and reliable option while not possessing the potential to be weaponized against protestors or other citizens. These vehicles could be made available to local agencies by the military as part of a scaled back 1033 Program that does not include equipment more appropriate to a war zone than a US city.
The Obama Administration had placed limits on the 1033 Program in 2015 amid a national debate about the militarization of local police forces and their ability to infringe on the rights of US citizens. Speaking to the Fraternal Order of Police this past August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called those concerns “superficial,” while announcing President Trump’s decision to remove the limits placed on the program.
As for why police would need access to equipment like bayonets, The Washington Post reported Trump Administration officials as saying they believed police thought bayonets “were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.” In response to the Administration’s actions a coalition of organizations including FreedomWorks, the R Street Institute, the ACLU, and the NAACP sent a letter to Congress calling for a legislative moratorium on the 1033 Program until hearings can be held to determine its proper scope. So far, Congress has taken no substantive action on the matter.
As the 1033 Program regains momentum under the Trump Administration it is unlikely that concerns over its radical transformation of America’s police departments will cease. Some have expressed the additional worry that giving police weapons of war can create a psychological effect where the citizens police are supposed to protect increasingly become seen as an enemy force, or at least an occupied people – the very dynamic that eventually led to America’s war for independence. The responsibility for ensuring that does not happen rests with law enforcement officials. Whether or not they will take it as seriously as they should remains to be seen.