To hear civil libertarians tell it, Montana’s recent push to de-militarize the police has its roots in the Bozeman BearCat incident of 2014. The city’s police department bought a 17,000-pound armored vehicle—a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or “BearCat”—with money from the federal Homeland Security Grant Program. But it did so without the knowledge of the City Commission, and public outcry ensued. “Some commenters went to the police department’s Facebook page, usually known for its campy morning posts, and chastised the department for getting such a vehicle,” The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported. Soon, the hashtag #senditback began to circulate. Critics in this city of 45,000 worried that souped-up gear would start to make their local police department look more like a military force.
And it wasn’t just one shiny new BearCat—or one federal grant—they had to worry about. Since 1990, the Defense Department has transferred over $5.4 billion in surplus military equipment to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies across the country through its “1033 Program.” As the Washington Post explained last week, the equipment has included “armored vehicles, riot gear, rifles, ammunition and computers that had been scrapped by the Defense Department,” and it all comes remarkably cheap. The only fee the local forces have to pay is shipping.
After much debate, the Bozeman City Commission ended up voting to keep the BearCat, but the controversy led to action at the state level in 2015, with Democratic Governor Steve Bullock signing a Republican-sponsored bill passed with bipartisan support. The Montana law blocks state and local police departments from receiving certain equipment from the 1033 Program, namely weaponized drones, aircraft configured for combat, grenade launchers, silencers, and militarized armored vehicles. Police are free to request other kinds of military surplus equipment from the federal government, but they must notify the public within 14 days of doing so.
Niki Zupanic, who was the policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana at the time the law was passed, told me that the goal was twofold. “The sense of the legislature was that there should be some types of equipment that just were not appropriate for local law enforcement,” Zupanic said. “They [also] thought it was important for those decisions to be more transparent.”
The law hasn’t worked perfectly, as some police forces have been slow or unwilling to publicize their requests for equipment. But this week, national criminal justice reform advocates are hailing Montana’s law as a model for how states and localities could begin to push back against President Donald Trump’s attack on policing reform.
Addressing the Fraternal Order of Police on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration is overturning the modest restrictions President Barack Obama placed on the 1033 program in 2015. Following the confrontation between protesters and police in military-grade gear in Ferguson, Missouri, the year before, Obama banned the transfer of grenade launchers, tanks, and other tracked armored and weaponized vehicles, plus firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher. At the time, Obama said “militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there’s an occupying force—as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”
For his part, Sessions dismissed these concerns as “superficial” on Monday. Radley Balko, a Post opinion blogger and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, tweeted that the attorney general was sending a clear message—one firmly in line with the president’s pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio last week. When it comes to policing in America, Balko said, the Trump administration is intent on scrapping “protect and serve” in favor of shock and awe:
Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and racial justice activist, responded to Sessions’ announcement with a tweetstorm calling for state legislatures and city councils across America to replicate Montana’s bill:
“If Montana can do it, every state can do it,” Sinyangwe told me. “It’s a really important piece of legislation.”
As Sinyangwe pointed out, Montana wasn’t the first state to take action on the military surplus issue. Earlier in 2015, New Jersey passed a law—signed by Governor Chris Christie—that required “approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment,” according to New Jersey’s ACLU chapter, which hailed the legislation as “a groundbreaking victory.” But Sinyangwe said Montana’s law goes furthest in actually restricting this type of equipment, making it the best model. He’d like to see states and cities go further still, by deciding to give their equipment back. “It’s going to take a local- and state- focused strategy,” he said.
Kanya Bennett, a legislative counsel for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, agreed that New Jersey and Montana can now be models for the rest of the country. “I certainly anticipate seeing more jurisdictions, including states, taking ownership of this issue and restricting weapons that can come into their communities,” she told me, “or, at the very least, requiring city councils or other governing bodies to sign off.” Bennett said the ACLU will be releasing its own model legislation in the coming days, focused on local approval for military equipment transfers as opposed to limits or prohibitions. “The emphasis is really on community engagement,” she stressed, but individual states and localities may well impose their own bans, as Montana did.
“We also don’t want to let the federal government off the hook,” Bennett told me. She noted that Sessions’ announcement drew condemnation from Congress on Monday, including from some Republican lawmakers. “This makes my blood boil,” Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina told the Times, from “both a taxpayer standpoint and a civil liberties standpoint.” Senator Rand Paul tweeted that “Americans must never sacrifice their liberty for an illusive and dangerous, or false, security.”
Bennett supports Paul’s plan to reintroduce his “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act,” telling me, “I certainly think we need to encourage members of Congress who are sensible about this to stay the course. . . . I think there’s just a significant consensus that there is no place for weapons of war in our communities.”
That’s certainly what Representative Hank Johnson, the Democrat who introduced the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” in the House, argues. After Sessions’ announcement on Monday, Johnson told me Trump “has no understanding of how the 1033 program can destabilize the very democracy he was elected to lead.” Echoing Obama’s rationale for the restrictions, the congressman said, “I worry about police agencies arming up to a point where they appear to citizens to be occupying forces.”
Sinyangwe gave the example of police using tanks, riot shields, and assault weapons to execute drug raids, often for marijuana. “They do not uphold a guardian mentality,” he said. “Instead they reinforce the warrior mentality that has resulted in these high-profile incidents of police violence we’ve seen. . . . These are the type of weapons that are used against protesters and particularly communities of color.”
Johnson acknowledges that the odds are “not good” for his bill to be considered on the floor anytime soon. That’s why activists like Sinyangwe are focused on states and localities. Yet Johnson is promising to push forward and make his case to the American people. Paul tweeted that civil liberties and criminal justice reform “will be major issues this fall” after Congress returns from its August recess.
“As Sessions puts his foot on the gas pedal taking us backwards on criminal justice reform—in his effort to try to please President Trump in order to keep his job—I call on all right-thinking people to resist,” Johnson said, “let their voices be heard, and let the footsteps of those in nonviolent protest continue to pound the path.”