After military-grade vehicles appeared on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., this summer, shocking protesters and even conservative politicians, Barack Obama vowed to review the federal programs that helped put them there. "There’s a big difference between our military and local law enforcement," the president said in August, "and we don't want those lines blurred."
On Monday, the White House finally released that long-awaited review, and its conclusion will likely disappoint civil-rights groups who say that local police have no legitimate need for mine-resistant vehicles. The White House report calls for a number of reforms in how local agencies can request such equipment, and what the feds should do to track it.
But the recommendations tinker at the edges of the central concern raised by critics who worry that police have become overly militarized: Why do they even need this kind of stuff — armored vehicles, gun turrets, automatic weapons — in the first place?
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have called for the Pentagon to stop giving the police such equipment, because it only further heightens tensions with local communities, turning neighborhoods into war zones, casting residents as enemy combatants. The White House review, though, doesn't call for any such moratorium. In fact, it never takes up the question of whether local police should have the kinds of tools the military uses at war.
Administration officials argued instead that Congress created these programs, suggesting that the president can't do much to fundamentally undue them. The report suggests, rather, that Obama issue an executive order directing agencies that run these programs to develop reforms over the next four months, working with civil rights groups.
The report also argues that the bulk of equipment transferred to local agencies is "fairly routine." Within the Pentagon's now-infamous 1033 program, the review says that just 4 percent of equipment given for free to local agencies in the past year included "controlled property" like weapons and armored vehicles. The rest of it was more mundane: office furniture, tents, first-aid kits, blankets, storage lockers, vehicle maintenance equipment.
That breakdown, though, compares pieces of property, not property values, apparently counting an MRAP alongside an office shelf. According to the review, 1.8 million pieces of "non-controlled" property were transferred from the DoD to local law enforcement agencies in the 12 months leading up to this August. Over that same time, about 78,000 items designed for military use were given to local agencies.
In all, local departments currently possess 460,000 such pieces of "controlled" equipment under the 1033 program, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 617 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and 616 aircraft. The Defense Logistics Agency retains the title to those pieces of equipment, and local agencies must return them to the DoD once they're no longer usable.
The report says nothing about how local police are using all this equipment — for crowd control? to fight drug trafficking? — in part because the federal agencies that give it to them don't track the answer. The Pentagon, for example, says it's not qualified to determine why local police might need the stuff they're asking for under the 1033 program. From the report:
Because DOD does not have expertise in civilian law enforcement operations and cannot assess how equipment is used in the mission of an individual [law enforcement agency], DOD relies upon State Coordinators, appointed by State Governors, to review and approve the particular types of equipment requested by LEAs, and upon the LEAs to determine the appropriate use for that equipment.
And yet the report also acknowledges that local law enforcement officials aren't particularly qualified to know what to do with military-grade equipment:
Members of law enforcement cited the specific concern that police chiefs and those responsible for authorizing the deployment of military-style equipment often lack proper training to understand when and how controlled equipment is most appropriately deployed.
Amid this confusion on both sides, local police currently don't have to justify why they want certain equipment, they don't have to seek civilian approval to order it, and they don't have to document how they've used it once it's in their hands. The White House report recommends some of these policies, but the recommendations largely underscore how little transparency and oversight currently exist as federal agencies transfer billions of dollars in equipment and funds to local police.
The report looked at programs run by five agencies, also including the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Together, they've given $18 billion in funds or resources to local law enforcement agencies since 2009. But the report found that the agencies also don't coordinate among themselves.
That means a local police department barred from one program may seek money for equipment from another. It also means that one agency giving a local police department equipment has no idea what other agencies have given it, too.
All of this federal support, the White House concludes, has expanded over the years much faster than the infrastructure and policies needed to govern it. That's an important insight. But by calling for local police to receive more training — including on civil rights and civil liberties — when they receive military-style equipment, the review leaves unasked the question Obama's own earlier comments seemed to raise: Is it even a good idea to give it to them?