Biden’s AWOL Executive Order on Police Militarization

Speaking Security Newsletter | Advisory Note for Organizers and Candidates, n°71 | 9 March 2021

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Situation

Today, Rep. Hank Johnson re-introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. The act places restrictions on the 1033 program, the primary mechanism by which military equipment is transferred to police. The same language was included in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House last week, but Johnson was right to offer it as a standalone piece of legislation (with the intent of it being included in the next defense bill) in case the former fails in the Senate.

Ideally, legislation would abolish the 1033 program entirely (as proposed by the BREATHE Act and the legislation Rep. Velazquez will probably introduce again), but progress is needed on this ASAP, and Johnson’s bill helps with that. If it wasn’t valuable, the Squad wouldn’t comprise six of its 74 cosponsors and SPRI wouldn’t be among the bill’s supporting organizations.

A reminder of why progress on the 1033 program is so urgently needed:

^Adapted from Delehanty et al, 2017. “We find a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” 

There’s more pressure on Rep. Johnson’s legislation because Biden didn’t rein in police militarization with an Executive Order like he said he would

The first two priorities listed on the presidential calendar for January 26 — “Equity Day” — indicated that Biden would sign EOs related to 1) police militarization and 2) private prisons.

Biden signed an EO that ended DOJ contracts with private prison companies (but not ICE contracts). For police militarization, Biden didn’t sign one at all.

What was expected to happen

Biden was expected to bring back Obama-era restrictions governing the transfer of military equipment to police. Those restrictions were established by an Obama Executive Order (#13688) in January 2015 that was active until Trump repealed it with his own EO (#13809) in August 2017.

Most of the items the Obama EO prohibited were prohibited already, like weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles; and firearms and ammunition equal to or larger than .50 caliber. It also didn’t prohibit police from having ‘controlled equipment’ like riot gear, armored vehicles, and assault rifles.

While half-assed and mostly ineffectual, Obama’s EO did prompt police to return 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers, and 1,623 bayonets to DOD because it designated those items as ‘prohibited’ (instead of merely as ‘controlled’). So reintroducing Obama-era restrictions would have helped a little bit, and nothing was stopping Biden from beefing up the list of prohibited items to include the military equipment that would be banned by Rep. Johnson’s bill.

In short, the worst thing Biden could have done was nothing, and that’s what he did. So until the Justice in Policing Act or Johnson’s bill passes both chambers (or Biden changes his mind), the police are still living in Trump’s America as far as obtaining military equipment is concerned.

Why Biden’s Executive Order went AWOL

Both exchanges I had with people from Biden’s transition team regarding the 1033 program went well. I still think that. It’s just that some voices resonate with this White House more than others due to access or ideology or both.

Take the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), for example: NAPO communicated directly with the Department of Justice and the White House Domestic Policy Council to secure a political outcome (albeit tenuous) congruent with its deeply flawed ideology. While not alone in the effort, they earned the right to call it a lobbying victory.

The receipts:

January 22 (the EO on 1033 was expected to be signed on the 26th):

^Source. The author of this letter is Bill Johnson, NAPO’s executive director.

February 5:

^Source

Here’s an elaboration on where NAPO stands, ideologically. NAPO’s executive director (the one texting/calling people in DOJ) has said that “[military] equipment has not led to the militarization of police”[?!] and lobbied hard against the Obama Executive Order:

^Source.

Conclusion

The fight on the national level against the 1033 program and police militarization more broadly must be accompanied by action on the local level, too. This White House doesn’t seem like it’s here to help.

Thanks for your time,

Stephen (@stephensemler; stephen@securityreform.org)

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