Proposed Bills Risk Accelerating Militarization of U.S. Police Departments

Two bills introduced into the United States Congress in the past two weeks may accelerate the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies, encouraging the further militarization of police departments in contravention of internationally accepted standards on policing.

The “Lifesaving Gear for Police Act,” introduced into the United States Senate by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and sent to committee on March 16, 2016, is meant to “ensure [that] America’s law enforcement officers have access to lifesaving equipment needed to defend themselves and civilians from attacks by terrorists and violent criminals.” A companion bill, the “Protecting Lives Using Surplus Equipment Act of 2016,” was introduced into the House of Representatives by Representative John Ratcliffe (R-TX) last Wednesday, March 23, 2016, and was endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police, National Sheriffs Association, and Major County Sheriffs’ Association.

The increased militarization of local police departments contributes to a pattern of excessive use of force by police against unarmed civilians, especially Black Americans: in 2015 alone, over 1,100 individuals were killed by the police, of whom 226 were unarmed. Police departments in the United States have steadily become more militarized since 1997, following the creation of the 1033 Program, which transfers excess military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies. Many police departments routinely use heavy arms and combat equipment with great frequency and deploy SWAT teams to carry out everyday policing duties, including in response to reports of non-violent crimes.

The goal of these two proposed bills is to undermine the effect of an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in January 2015. The executive order created a Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, tasked with designing regulations that would limit or rework federal transfers of certain military-style equipment to local law enforcement. Senator Toomey and Representative Ratcliffe’s bills would undo, defund, and prohibit the federal implementation of the Working Group’s recommendations unless those recommendations were codified into law by Congress.

The increased militarization of local law enforcement agencies is at odds with international principles on policing, as described in a recent submission from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.