Skip to main content

In light of President Trump’s announcement that he’ll resume transfers of weapons from the Pentagon to local police departments, here’s what you need to know.

This article was originally published in September of 2014, following the death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

How did police in Ferguson, Missouri afford, let alone acquire, the powerful military equipment that met protestors this summer?

A Pentagon program called 1033 provides part of the answer.

The program was born in the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, legislation that determines how the U.S. can spend money on the military. Its name comes from the section of the bill, 1033, in which it appeared.

Over the past 15 years, this program has allowed the Pentagon to donate military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies. The pace of donations has increased in recent years, due to fears of terrorist attacks, budget cuts and the winding down of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012 alone, municipal law enforcement agencies received $546 million in equipment.

Ferguson is just one of many communities to receive equipment through this program. Towns all over the country now possess Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and other equipment designed for a war zone. Police in towns such as Columbia, South Carolina; McLennan County, Texas; Nampa, Idaho; West Lafayette, Indiana; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Yuma, Arizona; Calhoun, Alabama; and at Ohio State University are kitted out to respond to violent extremists with lethal, military force.

The U.S. response to the September 11 attacks is partly behind this dangerous escalation. Suddenly, communities felt they needed to be on high alert at all times, ready to respond to any threat. In this culture of fear, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars on weapons and equipment for war. That equipment went to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. As troops came home, surplus equipment went straight to police departments, thanks to the 1033 program.

For a police department like Ferguson’s, the path to becoming a paramilitary force is a short one. After getting this free military gear, law enforcement agents use it. The 1033 program’s regulations require that the police use what they receive within one year.

At a recent FCNL-sponsored congressional briefing on the militarization of police, Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, painted a picture of a new and frightening kind of policing, seen most often and most brutally in black and Hispanic communities and neighborhoods. The ACLU report, “The War Comes Home,” describes how heavily armed 20-member SWAT teams are used routinely to execute search warrants, often entering homes late at night and using battering rams to break down doors. They come in with assault weapons drawn. SWAT teams were originally developed to respond to emergencies, such as sniper and hostage situations. Now 79 percent of their “deployments” are for executing warrants.

This militarizing of routine police work exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of disorder. This disorder, in turn, appears to justify a militarized police response, and so the cycle continues.

The federal government can start to change the equation by ending Pentagon transfers of military grade weapons through the 1033 program. Cutting off access to these weapons won’t, by itself, change the attitude of police officers towards the people they serve. But it is an important step to return police to policing, not occupying, their communities.

FCNL first began talking to lawmakers about the 1033 program last year, when few others were questioning the program. The events in Ferguson have brought home to many people the dangers of a militarized approach to policing. This September, enabled by our advocacy, Reps. Hank Johnson (GA) and Raul Labrador (ID) introduced the bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

We’ve also helped amplify the voices of law enforcement officers who are critical of this militarized approach. At the congressional briefing this summer, former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper talked about how military-style tactics like those his department used during the 1999 WTO protests are counterproductive, leading community members to feel suspicious and threatened. Police access to military-grade equipment only reinforces this attitude.

Rolling back the 1033 program is important, but it’s not enough. Through the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants” program, local police departments have received more than $34 billion to acquire surveillance drones, Army tanks, and other equipment ill-suited for local policing. Like the 1033 program, these grants contribute to militarized policing that damages trust between police officers and community members. We are encouraging members of Congress to roll back this program as well. The tragic events in Ferguson this summer have focused national attention on what police militarization looks like. This gives an opportunity to talk about the context in which it arose. Initiatives such as the 1033 program and terrorism grants to local communities reflect attitudes of fear, hostility and suspicion. At the same time, lines are increasingly blurred between foreign and domestic policy and between military and non-military activities in the U.S. Even as we work to eliminate the specific programs through which these attitudes are manifest, we must also speak to the reasons these programs were created and the alternative approaches that will ensure the shared security of us all.