Arming the Taliban—But Not Cops?
Lawmakers take aim at a program equipping police with military-surplus gear.
Can anyone forget the images of Taliban fighters riding around Kabul on U.S. vehicles, wearing U.S.-supplied uniforms, and carrying U.S.-made rifles? In addition to stranding people in Afghanistan, the Americans also abandoned Humvees; trucks and armored vehicles, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection (MRAP) vehicles valued at about $800,000 each; artillery; aging but operable helicopters and attack aircraft; drones; artillery and mortars; and millions of rounds of ammunition. No one is quite sure how many of these items were disabled or are too sophisticated for the Taliban to operate. Estimates of their value range from $24 billion to $83 billion. Whatever the true figure, U.S. agencies and a few independent investigators agree that close to one-third of what Washington spent on the Afghan defense forces went for war matériel now held by an enemy we ousted 20 years ago.
Contrast the relative apathy shown by many over Taliban possession of this equipment with the ongoing furor over the $7.5 billion worth of decommissioned military gear that the Department of Defense provides to U.S. and territorial police departments under the 1033 Program, which many on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures want to curtail or eliminate. The 1033 Program was meant to save tax dollars by passing off the Pentagon’s excess equipment to local police, who receive the items for free except for shipping costs. The program was part of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, though there have been similar programs since the end of World War II. An earlier version of the program under President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and 1991 sought to aid police departments in fighting the war on drugs. Under President Bill Clinton, counterterrorism was also included among the program’s goals.
According to the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which operates the program as part of the Defense Logistics Agency’s Disposition Services, about 8,000 of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies have received military-grade equipment, subject to approval by their states. Much of the cast-off gear is office equipment, clothing and uniforms, tools, and radios.
It is the “controlled equipment,” including armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, rifles and grenade launchers, that has led to demands to rein in the program. The outcry over images of police riding on armored vehicles, wearing night-vision goggles, and carrying military-grade firearms during the 2014 Michael Brown protests led President Barack Obama to issue Executive Order 13688 in 2015, limiting what the Defense Department could transfer. Prohibited items included tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles; .50-caliber firearms and ammunition; bayonets; camouflage uniforms; and grenade launchers. In response, LESO reported that police had returned 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers, and 1,623 bayonets by April 1, 2016.
But the prohibition was short-lived. In August 2017, President Donald Trump revoked EO 13688, again permitting the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, and utility knives—with the rationale for the last two being that officers kept these in their vehicles for use during emergency situations. The program had discontinued transfers of grenade launchers in 1999, prior to Obama’s executive order—a policy that remains in effect today.
Campaigning in July 2020, candidate Joe Biden spoke forcefully against the 1033 Program. “Surplus military equipment for law enforcement? [Police] don’t need that,” he said. “The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into the neighborhood. It is like the military invading. They don’t know anybody. They become the enemy. They’re supposed to be protecting these people.”
Yet Biden has not reversed Trump’s revocation of Obama’s executive order. The administration instead seems to be awaiting passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which, as part of its grab-bag of police-related requirements and prohibitions, includes a four-page Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement section that would limit—but not end—the 1033 Program. The Floyd Act, for which negotiations collapsed in September, contained loopholes, including continuing to transfer items for counterterrorism and general law enforcement efforts, but not for anti-drug or border security activities (distinguishing these activities is not always easy).
Congress may get another chance to eliminate the 1033 Program. More than 70 House members, led by Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson, have introduced a free-standing Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act that bans transfers of bayonets, grenades, and explosives; Humvees and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles; armored or weaponized drones; and aircraft considered combat-configured or combat-coded. The current bill, similar to one Johnson introduced in 2014, is co-sponsored by California Republican Tom McClintock, a member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Several states have also included limited or total bans on items police may receive from the 1033 Program in their law-enforcement-related legislative packages.
But why so much talk and so little action? If the president, as commander-in-chief, believes that the Pentagon should not transfer military-grade items to police, why doesn’t he simply overturn Trump’s order and revert to the Obama-era mandate, as he has done in so many other areas?
Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).