By Mike Maharrey
A California bill that would create a mechanism to stop transfers of military equipment to state or local law enforcement agencies cleared its final committee hurdle last and will now move on to the Senate floor when it returns from a summer recess in August.
Introduced by Asm. Nora Campos (D-San Jose), Assembly Bill 36 (AB36) would prohibit a local agency from applying to receive “high-visibility surplus military equipment”…unless the legislative body of the local agency votes to approve the acquisition by ordinance or resolution at a regular public meeting pursuant to the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The bill also tasks a state coordinator with creating a catalog of “high-visibility surplus military equipment” that would require such approval, including and extensive list of gear stipulated by the legislation. The ordinance or resolution must include a list of equipment to be applied for and the length of time the authorization is valid, not to exceed one year.
AB36 passed the Assembly 56-12 in May. The Senate Committee on Governance and Finance voted 6-0 to pass an amended version of the bill and the Appropriation Committee sent it on to the floor under Senate rules.
The legislation sets the foundation for local communities to stop federal militarization programs. Via the Pentagon’s 1033 Program and funding programs from the DHS and elsewhere, the federal government provides local law enforcement with aircraft, armored vehicles, automatic weapons, night vision equipment and more – originally intended for use on the battlefield – at little or no cost.
The Senate amendment requires a state coordinator to create a list of military equipment that would trigger the requirement for a public meeting and vote. The coordinator must include gear stipulated in the legislation, and would have the discretion to add additional equipment to the list. The required equipment includes firearms and ammo .50 caliber and greater, specialized firearms, bayonets, armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, military aircraft, any weaponized vehicles, drones, camouflage uniforms, riot gear and breaching apparatus.
“Due to recent events of police brutality, distrust between law enforcement and many of our communities remains at an all-time high,” Campos said. “Further exacerbating the issue is the recent militarization of law enforcement agencies and a movement away from community policing across the nation.”
Currently, these military transfers happen directly between the feds and local police, as if they make up part of the same government. If passed into law, AB36 would interpose local government in the process, giving the people of California the power to end these federal programs on a community-by-community basis. At the least, it would force the process into the open.
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Almost 13,000 agencies in all 50 states and four U.S. territories participate in the military “recycling” program, and the share of equipment and weaponry gifted each year continues to expand. In 2011, $500 million worth of military equipment was distributed to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. That number jumped to $546 million in 2012.
Since 1990, $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies through the 1033 program, in addition to various other programs supposedly aimed at fighting the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terror.
The Office of Emergency Services (OES) is responsible for administering the 1033 Program in California. It keeps an up-to-date inventory of federal military transfers occurring within the state. However, according to the Assembly on Local Government’s analysis of AB39, the OES has not made that information publicly available on their website. Recently, the cities of Davis and San Jose decided to return surplus equipment acquired under the program.
Making the local approval requirement pursuant to the Ralph M. Brown Act ensures that the public can be a part of the process if they want. The law was enacted in response to mounting public concerns over informal, undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials. City councils, county boards, and other local government bodies were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret “workshops” and “study sessions.” It requires, among other things, notice for meetings and the ability of the public to attend in person.
In March, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a similar bill into law, making his state the first in the country to push questions of federal militarization to the local level. A broader bill, with an outright ban on receiving certain military weapons or even purchasing them with federal grants was signed into law last month by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Similar bills are up for consideration in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington State and elsewhere. “These states are taking important first steps towards ending this federal militarization and control of local police,” said Michael Boldin of the Tenth Amendment Center. “As James Madison taught us, refusing to cooperate with federal programs in multiple states is the most effective way to bring them down.”