43 House Democrats Join Call for More Restrictions on Transfer of Military Gear to Police

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Police ride on an armored vehicle.
Police ride on an armored vehicle on May 31, 2020 in Bellevue, Washington. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Amid months of recent protests across the nation against police violence and racial bias, the transfer of Defense Department tactical vehicles and military weapons to local law enforcement agencies has drawn increased scrutiny.

In a new letter released this month, 43 members of the U.S. House -- led by House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Anthony Brown of Maryland and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass of California -- are calling for major changes to the way military gear is transferred and accounted for, and urging the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to pass reforms in the pending defense policy bill.

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The separate House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021 are pending a conference markup that will reconcile differences before a final version can be passed and sent to the president for enactment. The Senate version would impose significant new restrictions on the free transfer of military gear to police departments, and House lawmakers are urging leaders to include those provisions in the final version of the bill.

The military-to-law enforcement transfer program was established by Congress in the 1997 version of the NDAA. It broadly approved the donation of everything from tracked armored vehicles to guns, "suitable for use by the agencies in law enforcement activities, including counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities." Since then, more than $5.1 billion in military castoff gear has ended up at thousands of local and state law enforcement agencies.

The proposed changes would altogether prevent the transfer of various items that have no clear civilian law enforcement use, such as weaponized tracked vehicles, weaponized drones and grenades. The group of lawmakers also called on committee leaders to oppose another provision that would prioritize the transfer of military gear to other civilian agencies, including those tasked with non-natural disaster preparedness, border security and counterdrug operations.

"Our law enforcement agencies are meant to serve and protect the public and they should not be equipped like combat units," the lawmakers wrote in the Sept. 25 letter. "These common sense reforms will ensure American cities and streets are not transformed into war zones."

They also called for accountability measures to be added to the military equipment transfer program, including a requirement for annual reporting of excess military property transfers; added notifications to Congress about transfers; guarantees that local authorities would have oversight of new transfer actions; and the establishment of "remedies for misuse of the equipment in violation of civil liberties."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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