by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
What comes to mind after seeing these numbers?

  • 79,288 assault rifles
  • 205 grenade launchers
  • 11,959 bayonets

Preparation for war? Nope. As we wrote last summer, under federal programs linked to the failed War on Drugs, local law enforcement throughout the United States receive each year billions of dollars of funding and military hardware designed for the battlefield. In many communities, these programs have transformed the role of law enforcement – from protecting the community to engaging the residents as the enemy. The number of weapons listed above are just a fraction of the weapons transferred under these programs.

Finally, there’s some good news – the militarization of state and local police forces hit a snag last week. After months of discussion, the Obama administration announced some positive changes to the way it transfers military equipment to state and local police departments, including:

  • Ensuring that state or local government bodies approve the law enforcement request (check back next week for a blog dedicated to this basic accountability change – something we’ve long advocated for, with some success).
  • Establishing “Prohibited Equipment Lists” of weapons and vehicles that cannot be transferred to state and local law enforcement, including bayonets, grenade launchers, large caliber weapons, and tracked armored vehicles.
  • Requiring state and local law enforcement to justify why they need the equipment and establish training requirements for the use of the equipment.
  • Ensuring that state and local law enforcement recipients adopt standards to ensure community and constitutional policing.
  • Requiring the federal government to establish oversight procedures to ensure that the equipment is being used as required under the guidelines.

One of the most shocking things about these new restrictions is the fact that they are new restrictions. It’s unbelievable that, until this decision, the federal government gave state and local law enforcement bayonets, grenade launchers, large caliber weapons, and tracked armored vehicles without any true oversight or accountability procedures in place. Sometimes progress can highlight just how far we’ve devolved.

We should be clear – these new requirements do not mean that we won, but they are a huge step forward toward rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. They are also a huge step toward ending the militarization of law enforcement in America.

But, while we have progress on the militarization front, the use of federal programs to expand the surveillance state is moving full steam ahead. As our colleagues at the ACLU of Massachusetts recently wrote:

For the past decade plus, the feds have been buying hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of surveillance equipment for state and local police departments, mostly without any public debate or scrutiny. License plate readers, stingray cell phone snooping tools, biometric technology, surveillance cameras, finger print readers, powerful intelligence databases, rapid DNA testing machines, and fusion centers deserve the same level of attention.

We’ve taken some baby steps in Virginia, including new laws that will require law enforcement to get a warrant before it can use a drone or Stingray to spy on us. At the same time, Governor McAuliffe vetoed bi-partisan legislation that would have simply clarified that Virginia law prohibits law enforcement from using surveillance technologies to track the movements of innocent Virginians, thus requiring us to go back to court to ensure that our movements are not subject to limitless, unchecked government surveillance.
So, while bayonets and grenade launchers are on their way out, we still have a long way to go until we know more about the government than it knows about us.