A Florida beach, a local Cabela’s store, Arkansas’s Magic Springs theme park, and Packers football games. Other than being everyday stops for entertainment, what do these spots have in common? Law enforcement agencies requested mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) from the Department of Defense to secure all of them. To understand how law enforcement for Dundee, Michigan’s 4,000 residents got an MRAP to secure a Cabela’s store, we need to look at the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program, which allows state, local, and tribal law enforcement to receive excess military equipment from the Department of Defense for free.
As we celebrate and promote open government this Sunshine Week, we should also highlight programs that lack transparency. At CREW, we fight for transparency in the executive branch, judiciary, and Congress because we know it is critical to an ethical and accountable democracy. Transparency in government programs enables the public and Congress to evaluate their impact, which is why it’s especially important to shed light on 1033.
Since it was established in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, 1033 has accounted for the transfer of over 7.6 billion dollars’ worth of military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The majority of the equipment transferred is “non-controlled” items such as office supplies, clothing, and rescue equipment; but agencies have also received assault rifles, pipe bomb materials, tactical vehicles, helicopters, and airplanes through the program.
In 2014, 1033 received increased scrutiny after the militarized response to the 2014 racial justice protests in Ferguson, where law enforcement in riot gear pointed assault rifles at the crowd while standing atop military vehicles which may have been acquired through the 1033 program (by summer 2014, agencies in Missouri had acquired at least 20 mine-resistant vehicles through the program). Reporting indicates that agencies also used weapons and equipment obtained through the 1033 program at the Standing Rock protests and in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd.
For most of 1033’s existence, the public has largely been left in the dark about what equipment is transferred through the program, how it is used, and by whom. For nearly 20 years, the program operated without a requirement for the Department of Defense or receiving agencies to publicly report what equipment had been transferred. Inconsistent recordkeeping and data on 1033 have made it hard to evaluate its effects. This is especially concerning because there is significant evidence indicating that the militarization of law enforcement increases both violence against police and violence by police, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Some positive steps towards transparency and oversight of 1033 were made in the 2016 NDAA and subsequent defense appropriations bills. These bills placed additional restrictions on “controlled items” (such as MRAPs and explosives), required the DOD to create a public website with information about weapon transfers, and mandated that agencies certify that they will provide training to the relevant officers. But more reforms are needed.
Existing public data on 1033 transfers does not include information about the purpose of the transfer. The only way we know that Dundee got an MRAP to secure a Cabela’s is because of FOIA requests by Mother Jones. This reporting revealed that while some 1033 requests may be legitimate, a significant portion of requests have questionable justifications. After all, circumstances in which local law enforcement needs bomb-resistant equipment and weapons of war should be few and far between–and an outdoor recreation store hardly seems like a location in need of such protection.
Presidential administrations have sought to reform 1033 through executive orders, but these orders can easily be overturned, as we saw when President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s 1033 restrictions. In May 2022, President Biden signed an Executive Order which placed limitations on equipment transfers and ordered participating agencies to notify the public of property requests. However, it’s unclear if all of these changes have been implemented or what measures, if any, are in place to ensure that agencies comply. The Defense Logistics Agency should update the public about the implementation of the executive order, and provide more information about how to access agencies’ requests and notices.
For a longer-term solution, Congress should pass legislation to increase oversight and transparency of the 1033 program. Congress should require all participating agencies to produce publicly available reports on what equipment they receive and how it will be used. Congress should also address oversight concerns related to training officers who use 1033 equipment. Agencies that participate in 1033 have to certify that they have administered the appropriate training; however, there is no process to verify this certification. Furthermore, local agencies may not have the resources or appropriate experience to train officers on how to use military equipment. Instead, Congress should require the DOD to conduct training for agencies on how to use controlled equipment.
Any legislative fix should also address the potential for 1033 equipment to be misused. Existing oversight measures require states to conduct annual compliance reviews of only 8% of agencies that have acquired equipment through the 1033 program. When it comes to powerful and dangerous military equipment, this minimal oversight measure at the state level is laughable. There should be a mandatory review process to address inappropriate uses of equipment for all participating agencies. This process should also include a way for the public to provide input and raise complaints.
As the annual defense appropriations process picks up again in the spring, transparency advocates should push for the inclusion of bills like Representative Hank Johnson’s Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act and other measures to reform the 1033 program. If we keep advocating for policies to enhance the transparency of the program and the accountability of law enforcement, we might have even more to celebrate next Sunshine Week.