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If Your Time is short

  • Since 1990, the federal government has had a program to transfer surplus military equipment to local police agencies. The equipment ranges from weapons and vehicles to common office supplies, exercise equipment and clothing.

  • Some activists and lawmakers on the left want President Joe Biden to either ban or reign in the military giveaway effort known as the 1033 program.

  • The amount of equipment given to law enforcement agencies each year varies depending upon the available supply.

Black Lives Matter activists want President Joe Biden to ban the transfer of military equipment to local police agencies.

A renewed push by activists and some lawmakers to halt or rein in the longstanding military transfer program comes in response to a year of protests against police brutality and for racial justice in cities nationwide following the murder of George Floyd.

Black Lives Matter said on Twitter that Biden has ramped up the program to send military equipment into local communities.

“Biden’s first 100 days are up in 10 days. By then we need him to #End1033, which transfers military equipment into the hands of police across the country– including school & campus police. Another example? The military you see out on your streets ahead of the Chauvin verdict.

“Biden is currently sending more military equipment to our neighborhoods than Trump did. You read that right. Our communities are being terrorized at a greater rate than they had been under Trump.”

We sent emails to Black Lives Matter asking for evidence of the claim and did not receive a response. We don’t know if the group was comparing all equipment transfers under the program or only certain types of equipment. It also isn’t clear if it compared Biden’s first quarter in office to any particular time period during Trump’s tenure.

We found that comparing the use of the program under Biden to its operation under Trump is problematic. First, Biden has been in office only three months while Trump served for four years. Second, a president has virtually nothing to do with the amount of equipment transferred through the program. Even when past presidents have issued orders related to the program, they have had little control over how much equipment was transferred.

We looked at the quarterly data of equipment transfers in the program and found that it’s wrong to generalize and say Biden is sending more military equipment to neighborhoods than Trump.

“The Black Lives Matter assertions are overbroad,” said Kevin Govern, a law professor at Ave Maria University and an adjunct instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Some greater perspective than one single quarter in a fiscal year is necessary for a meaningful assessment.”

After Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while in police custody, Biden on the campaign trail called for the U.S. to “stop transferring weapons of war to police forces.” House Democrats wrote a letter in April asking him to issue an executive order to end the transfer of certain military equipment. We asked a White House spokesperson if Biden has any such plans and did not get a response.

While Biden could effectively shut down the military equipment program with an order, permanently abolishing it would require an act of Congress, wrote Stephen Semler, cofounder of Security Policy Reform Institute, a U.S. foreign policy think tank.

Background on the 1033 program

The 1033 program, named for a section of federal law, allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment from the federal government. This ranges from what the federal government calls “controlled” property — weapons, demilitarized vehicles and aircraft and night vision equipment — to general property such as office equipment, first aid kits, hand tools, sleeping bags, computers and toilet paper.

After one year, general property becomes the property of the local law enforcement agency while the controlled property is considered a loan.

Supporters of the program say it’s an efficient way for local police agencies to obtain equipment they otherwise couldn’t afford. Law enforcement agencies pay for shipping and potential storage costs, but don’t pay for the property. Critics say that it has led to an excessive militarization of local police agencies and erects barriers between police and local communities.

More than 8,000 agencies participate in the program, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the government body that oversees it. That adds up to less than half the agencies in the country. Using the initial acquisition value, the total amount transferred since the program’s inception in 1990 is $7.4 billion.

Participating law enforcement agencies submit electronic requests to a state coordinator who then routes requests to federal officials for further review. The White House generally isn’t involved in that process, although recent presidents have issued orders related to the program.

President Barack Obama in 2015 ordered a review of the program following the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., over the death of Michael Brown. That led to an order to prohibit the transfer of certain equipment such as bayonets, but still left the program largely intact. In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded Obama’s order.

But in reality, these orders by Obama and Trump didn’t change the overall amount of equipment transferred to law enforcement agencies.

Patrick Mackin, a spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency, said the amount of property transferred is based primarily on how much equipment the military services have turned in for disposal. Historically, the largest transfers happen after deactivations or redeployments of units — such as from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2012–14. (Govern, the law professor, collected data from the Defense Logistics Agency showing how the acquisition value of transferred equipment soared during part of Obama’s tenure.)

The vast majority of the transferred equipment consists of common commercial items. Small arms weapons such as rifles and side-arms normally make up about 5% of the total, while less than 1% of property issued is tactical vehicles.

The Defense Logistics Agency provided us a quarterly breakdown of equipment under Biden’s first quarter in office and quarterly data for Trump’s tenure. We decided to focus on the controlled items — the ones that are clearly military equipment. For Biden’s tenure, we received data for the second quarter of fiscal year 2021 — January through March, which includes about three weeks of Trump’s presidency.

For that quarter, the data showed that both the number of items police departments received and the acquisition costs for those items were higher than some Trump quarters but lower than others.

The 1033 program is not the only way local agencies obtain such equipment — they can purchase it on their own or through grants from federal agencies. The town of Keene, N.H., home to about 30,000 people, accepted a federal grant in 2012 to purchase an armored truck. Comedian John Oliver later poked fun of the town’s application request, which mentioned the annual pumpkin festival as a potential terrorism target.

Our ruling

Black Lives Matter said, “Biden is currently sending more military equipment to our neighborhoods than Trump did.”

We don’t know how Black Lives Matter is comparing Biden’s short tenure to Trump’s presidency. One quarter of a year doesn’t tell us much about how the program has operated under Biden compared with four years of Trump.

But what it does show is that the amount of equipment given to local agencies varies from quarter to quarter but was higher in most Trump quarters than in the time period that includes Biden’s presidency.

We rate this statement False.

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