1. Statement
  2. Criminal Justice

Senators Paul, Schatz, and Wyden Reintroduce Bill to Demilitarize Law Enforcement

By José Santos Woss, October 4, 2017

Senators Rand Paul (KY), Brian Schatz (HI), and Ron Wyden (OR) have reintroduced S.1856, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (SMLA). This bill would prohibit the transfer of deadly military equipment to local police departments from the Pentagon under the 1033 program.

If passed, SMLA would require law enforcement to return all prohibited equipment to the Department of Defense utilizing federal funds through the Byrne JAG program—a federal grant program to support local police departments around the country. Law enforcement would still be permitted to request protective equipment like bullet proof vests and helmets.

The 1033 program was created in the 1980s and made permanent in 1996 to fully prosecute the harsh “war on drugs.” Surplus military equipment in the hands of local police grew rapidly after the September 11 attacks, as municipalities sought to militarize themselves against possible terrorist threats. In 2012, local law enforcement agencies received \$546 million in equipment –most of which were items designed for war zones.

The unrest in Ferguson, MO of 2014 gave us startling images of protestors with their hands up facing automatic weapons raised at them by police. Military personnel are trained not to raise their weapons until the subject is ready to engage (kill) a “hostile” party. This illustrates how police are not only using excessive force in communities of color; they are obtaining and using new weapons without proper training. This accelerates the troubling pattern of violence committed against people of color. When police ride inside de-facto tanks like MRAPS and carry weapons designed for a battlefield, they frequently view and treat communities they are supposed to protect as enemies to be contained.

Law enforcement officers shot and killed 1,100 people in 2016, a disproportionate number of whom were people of color. These deaths and the excessive use of force within communities of color contribute to a widening breach of trust between law enforcement and those communities. Introducing fresh equipment that’s more appropriate on a battlefield than on Main Street will only compound that problem. We applaud Senators Paul, Schatz, and Wyden for their leadership in taking on the issue of demilitarizing the police. Rep. Hank Johnson (GA) introduced his version (H.R.1556) on the House side earlier this year.

In response to this announcement, José Santos Woss, Legislative Manager covering mass incarceration and police militarization, stated:

“When veterans of color half-jokingly mention to friends that staying in a war zone would be safer than coming home after every ‘law enforcement involved’ shooting, we have a serious problem. It should horrify us all that failing to use a turn signal while driving to buy groceries or visit family can carry a death sentence. Sandra Bland’s death in custody is just one example. The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act would introduce limits on deadly weapons. Law enforcement should protect and serve, not menace and contain. These weapons represent an explosive combination in communities tolerating decades of pain from excessive policing in a country awash with guns. If passed, this bill would decrease violence in communities and likely save lives.”

Bayard Rustin reminds us in his powerful words: “We are all one – and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.”

Implementing de-escalation and implicit bias training effectively and systematically throughout the more than 18,000 police departments in the U.S. is not easy. Congress, at the very minimum, can stop making the problem considerably worse by taking back and prohibiting the transfer of lethal and deadly weapons to local police. We seek a world where everyone’s potential may be fulfilled. That world is very difficult to achieve when millions of black and brown people fear the police.

José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.