WASHINGTON — With a GOP-controlled Congress and Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans' once long-shot ambition of fully restoring a program that authorizes the transfer of military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies has been given a breath of life.
Trump promised during his campaign that he would be a president of law and order, and he could make good on his vow by restoring the 1033 Program, which was limited by President Barack Obama's administration following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Trump has said he will undo that decision and could reauthorize the program — and bring heavy-duty military equipment back to police forces — with the swipe of a pen as early as next month when he takes office.
The program is intended to assist law enforcement agencies "in crime fighting and protecting their citizens," according to the Defense Logistics Agency. While the changes he made in the program are not considered to be drastic, Obama instead focused on community policing initiatives.
"We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message," Obama in a speech in Camden, N.J. announcing the limitations. “So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
But critics of the changes he made to the program say that with Obama on his way out, the time may be ripe to reinstate it. It’s the moment Republicans on the Hill have been waiting for, some of whom introduced legislation as recently as this year to challenge Obama’s limitations.
While Trump could reverse Obama's restrictions on the program through an executive order of his own, some advocates are hopeful that Congress will act as well to protect it from the whims of whoever occupies the White House.
"What we'd like to see is legislation that would make it clear that administrations in the future couldn't do what this administration did and unilaterally change a program that was congressionally enacted," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told BuzzFeed News.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey introduced legislation, the Lifesaving Gear for Police Act, that sought to reverse Obama's restrictions this year, when he was up for reelection in a tight race against Democrat Katie McGinty. He, too, emphasized law and order during his reelection campaign, which he won in November.
"The Administration acknowledges that this gear fulfills legitimate police needs, and is often essential to saving police and civilian lives. But the Administration is worried that these items ‘could significantly undermine community trust,' and has decided that this possibility outweighs the need to protect the police and public," Toomey said in a statement in March.
But the legislation remained locked in the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where, the senator's office verified to BuzzFeed News, it is still awaiting consideration.
Steve Kelly, Toomey's press secretary, told BuzzFeed News that the senator "looks forward" to working with the Trump administration to reverse the changes Obama made.
“Our police officers should be at least as well equipped as the criminals and terrorists who attack them. Yet, the Obama Administration has placed unjustifiable restrictions on purely defensive equipment, such as protective helmets and armored vehicles," Kelly said.
Trump has addressed the program previously.
"The 1033 program is an excellent program that enhances community safety. I will rescind the current executive order," Trump said in a questionnaire posted on the national Fraternal Order of Police website earlier this year. The group endorsed his campaign this fall.
On the House side, Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe introduced very similar legislation, called the Protecting Lives Using Surplus Equipment Act of 2016.
That legislation also stalled before Congress left Washington for the year.
“It seems to me that if we’re asking you all to go to battle, then the very least that we can do is make sure that you get the type of equipment that you need to protect yourself and to protect all of us,” Ratcliffe said of local law enforcement, in a September hearing, where he highlighted the financial prudence of finding other uses for unused equipment that had already been paid for.
Ratcliffe's office did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
The 1033 program has been around since the 1990s, and today more than 8,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participate in it. The program provides those agencies with supplies ranging from sleeping bags to vehicles and weapons. If the excess equipment cannot be delivered to local law enforcement, then general supplies, like furniture, can be sold to the public, according to DLA. But controlled equipment, like weapons, "would be disposed of if no other DoD or federal agency requests it."
Critics in recent years have argued that local law enforcement was becoming too militarized, so the Obama administration limited the scope of what types of equipment could be transferred to them.
The list of items that were prohibited included things like tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers and some kinds of camouflage uniforms. According to the DLA, only three items on the prohibited list had ever been provided to local law enforcement through the 1033 program — tracked armored vehicles, bayonets and grenade launchers. They were returned to DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office following Obama's executive order.
“Nobody uses bayonets in local law enforcement,” Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, told BuzzFeed News, adding that he thought some of the restrictions, such as those on bayonets, were fine. But in some situations, like getting through snow or swamps, tracked armored vehicles could be handy for law enforcement agencies, he argued. “We lost that debate because the optics of having a tracked armored vehicle didn’t fit into the narrative of the current administration.”
More recent tragedies, like the attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge earlier this year, have caused the White House to give second thought to the restrictions. And the Obama administration has, all along, signaled that the program is important. That's why the White House stopped far short of cancelling the program entirely last year.
A White House official emphasized in a statement to BuzzFeed News that in addition to prohibiting "a few non-essential items like bayonets and grenade launchers," the changes were also about accountability and transparency, to let the public know what was being done with "federal tax-payer funded equipment."
"Throughout this entire process, we have worked closely with law enforcement organizations and we have agreed to adjust the requirements as necessary. We feel that this important program is the right way to protect officers and civilians," the White House official said.
Thompson said an ideal outcome is to legislatively remedy the program "with some guidelines" on when the equipment is used, how it is used and how inventory is tracked. He said he would like to see it administratively guided for consistency.
What will happen to the 1033 Program remains to be determined. The Trump transition team did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment on whether he will follow through with his promise to overturn Obama's executive order.
But it is clear that some initiatives that once seemed like a hail Mary in Congress, including reinstating the 1033 program at full force, stand a much better chance of becoming law with Trump in the White House.
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Lissandra Villa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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