Days after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and the country was forced to face images of its heavily armed, heavily armored police forces, the National Tactical Officers Association mobilized quickly to protect the program that had provided military surplus equipment to local law enforcement.
The NTOA, representing more than 1,500 SWAT teams across the United States, making up some 40,000 law-enforcement officials, fired an initial salvo by sending emails to all 535 congressional offices, arguing for the necessity of the program. Its goal, along with other associations representing the law-enforcement community, was to kill any hope of ending or substantially weakening the Pentagon’s 1033 equipment-transfer program.
That program allows local law enforcement to apply to receive surplus military equipment, even weapons that have little law-enforcement use, such as grenade launchers, bayonets, and combat knives. Armored vehicles, also known as MRAPs, have been obtained through the program and were pictured prominently during the Ferguson protests.
In the weeks that followed the initial demonstrations, NTOA Executive Director Mark Lomax reached out to dozens of congressional offices to put out fires and testified before the House and Senate Homeland Security committees.
His argument: Ninety-five percent of the equipment in the 1033 program is “non-tactical” equipment—vital aid for law enforcement that includes generators, rescue boats, and body armor. And that equipment “saves lives,” he asserted, armed with letters from police chiefs, sheriffs, and counties from all over the country.
At first, the outcome was far from certain. There were loud voices, including that of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), calling for ending the program entirely. But Lomax can heave a small sigh of relief, at least for now: Legislative reform to the 1033 program will not happen in 2014. With just two legislative weeks left in the year and other outstanding legislative items that need to be finished, there’s no hope for police demilitarization to become a priority.
“When [lawmakers] looked at it holistically, did they want to take away equipment and technology from front-line security?” Lomax told The Daily Beast. “We were able, hopefully, to educate those policy makers… As of December of this year, cooler heads have prevailed.”
On Monday afternoon, President Obama outlined the steps he was taking, without Congress, to address the police militarization. For aggressive supporters of reform, it was thin gruel.
The president announced the formation of a task force that will provide recommendations in 90 days and said he will sign an executive order that will make the 1033 program more transparent. He also is proposing funding for up to 50,000 more body cameras for law enforcement.
The announcement brought out some bitterness in Paul, who said the president had shown a willingness to take more aggressive independent action on other issues but hasn’t on the issue of equipment transfers to police.
“The administration apparently has the ability to ban a lot of stuff, and they haven’t,” Paul told reporters Monday. “We need a law on military surplus material.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a leading voice on police demilitarization, was supportive of the White House announcement. But she also suggested it was less significant than legislation Congress is working on, telling The Daily Beast: “They didn’t even do anything today—they basically put a timeline to look at what they can do.”
It appears that even the president sensed his announcement would be greeted with skepticism.
“It was a cautionary note, I think, from everybody here that there have been commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens,” Obama said. “What I try to describe to people is why this time will be different. And part of the reason this time will be different is because the president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different.”
Even police organizations that are open to some level of legislative reform are pessimistic about its future prospects. Jon Adler, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, favors reforms to the 1033 program that increase training for law enforcement, as well as greater accountability protocols.
“We draw no victory from leaving these issues unresolved,” Adler said. But he said he worried that reform to the 1033 program has become a “victim of soundbite warfare,” progressing much as immigration reform has in Congress: Both parties talk up a storm, but ultimately legislation stalls.
“We’re dealing with fair-weather focus on the Hill that preempts a sustained focus on the issue,” he said.
The National Black Police Association, which has existed since 1972, was an early critic of the 1033 program, arguing that the Pentagon gave equipment like armored vehicles away too easily and that the money spent on military equipment would be better spent on programs that create partnerships between police departments and their local communities. Malik Aziz, the group’s national chairman, said it has struggled to make its voice heard in the Ferguson debate.
“It appears without lobbyist[s] or deep contributing pockets, you don’t get far. We tried to become involved with committees that affect us and policing before Ferguson. So far we have had no luck,” Aziz told The Daily Beast. Legislative reform, he said, is unlikely: “I don’t expect Congress to move one inch if the past is an indicator of future behavior.”
Tell that to the congressional backers of police demilitarization, who are much more optimistic that they will hit their mark next year.
“Every time someone claims demilitarization is dead, remember one thing: the bipartisan beating DoD took over the 1033 program in [the Senate Homeland Security hearing earlier this year],” said an aide to Paul. “The senators who railed against these programs, most are still there [in the next Congress]. There will be legislation introduced next Congress on the issue.”
“Some of the most effective voices on these issues at Claire’s hearing were Republicans, which certainly bodes well for the coming Congress,” echoed an aide to McCaskill.
Meanwhile, the SWAT lobby remains vigilant.
“We need to be looking at the possibility that this might be scrutinized again,” Lomax said. “Something may occur in the new Congress.”
Backers of reform certainly hope so and believe it might have been too optimistic to expect change this year. There hasn’t been enough time to pass legislation in the months following Brown’s killing and the initial unrest in Ferguson, said Andy Phelan, a spokesman for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who in September proposed a bipartisan reform bill in the House.
“Remember that the 1033 program was virtually unknown to nearly all Americans and was not on the congressional agenda until the events in Ferguson,” Phelan said. “With 45 bipartisan cosponsors and a hearing in the HASC, Congress has moved remarkably fast… Rep. Johnson will continue working diligently to build support for the bill and reforming this program in the 114th Congress.”