Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Renewed calls to demilitarize police set the stage for familiar union fight

By: Ian Karbal, Center for Responsive Politics

Clashes between protesters and law enforcement around the country have led to a bipartisan call from congressional lawmakers to demilitarize America’s police. 

Several lawmakers have focused that effort on amending or repealing the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to request military-grade surplus equipment from the federal government. That equipment ranges from high-powered weapons to armored vehicles. 

The calls for demilitarization are familiar, but lobbying efforts by police unions, most notably the National Fraternal Order of Police, appear to have hampered proposed legislation in the past.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has expressed support for an early return to session to address police reforms. The National FOP’s PAC has contributed more to Hoyer between 2014 and 2020 than any other representative.

The 1033 Program, which has been around for over two decades, has seen intense scrutiny in Washington since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police. Images from those protests showing local police with military gear clashing with citizens are being evoked now as protests over the death of George Floyd have erupted in violence across the country. The deaths of Brown and Floyd are two of many highly publicized killings of black men by police over the last decade that have sparked protests against systemic racism.

Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The most recently available data from the 1033 Program shows local law enforcement agencies country-wide currently hold over $1.75 billion worth of surplus gear including mine resistant vehicles, grenade launchers and aircrafts.

In spite of the bipartisan introduction of multiple bills since 2014 aimed specifically at demilitarizing police, as well as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2015, the 1033 Program has seen no lasting change. Seven bills introduced in the House and Senate, all titled the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” never saw a vote. A 2014 amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act to cut funding for the transfer of military gear to local law enforcement was rejected 62-355 in the House. 

Obama’s executive order curtailing 1033 was overturned by President Donald Trump in 2017. The FOP endorsed Trump in his 2016 campaign with union president Jim Cantenbury declaring “he understands and supports our priorities and our members believe he will make America safe again.”

Pro-police lobbying groups have fought to keep the 1033 Program in place in spite of bipartisan support for reform. Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National FOP, one of the largest police lobbying groups in Washington, told The Hill in 2014 that “we are the most vigorous law enforcement advocacy group, and we intend to be at our most vigorous on this issue.” The statement was made shortly after lawmakers began calling for reforms in the wake of the Ferguson protests. 

The National FOP has spent $220,000 a year in lobbying efforts since 2007, but its influence far outweighs its spending. The Union represents more than 351,000 members nationwide. It also has vast influence over state and local chapters that regularly endorse candidates running for elected office at all levels. Pasco, the FOP’s executive director who is also listed as a lobbyist, worked on the Bush administration’s transition team while still with the FOP. Before that he handled congressional affairs for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

When Trump overturned Obama’s executive order, the FOP released a statement saying “the FOP has been working to roll back these restrictions since the day they were announced.” That effort appears to have been focused on the Trump administration and his former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who the FOP supported in his nomination. Lobbying records show the FOP focused its lobbying efforts on the White House and the Department of Justice in 2017.

Other groups have fought hard against the program. The American Civil Liberties Union reported lobbying on the issue every year since 2014. The conservative Charles Koch Institute has an issue page on its website with several critical statements about the militarization of police.

The fight looks slated to continue through the year as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle renewed calls to reform police militarization. The chairmen of both the House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have announced plans to hold hearings and consider legislation aimed at police reform.

The National FOP released a statement condemning the actions of the officer who’s been charged with killing Floyd on May 28. The statement also said that “Law enforcement officers are empowered to use force when apprehending suspects and they are rigorously trained to do so in order to have the safest possible outcome for all parties.” 

A separate statement was released by the FOP on the same day voicing confidence in Trump’s Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement to help guide the union through restoring trust. Trump has called for increased militarization in American cities as protests have resulted in violent clashes and looting.

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David M. Higgins II

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in Digital Marketing, eventually leading him back to his passion. David started The Southern Maryland Chronicle in December 2017 and has grown it to become the #1 news source in Southern Maryland.

David M. Higgins II has 11228 posts and counting. See all posts by David M. Higgins II