SWAT Association Helps Keep Military Surplus Program Going—For Now

Fallout from the Michael Brown shooting led to calls for scaling back a federal program that transfers military surplus equipment to police departments, but so far, one association has succeeded in convincing Congress to preserve it.

Even though the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown will not face criminal charges, the shooting and its aftermath could still have ramifications for police departments nationwide.

One reason: a push to limit the Pentagon 1033 Program, which provides surplus military equipment to police departments. The drumbeat to scale back the program has remained steady since the heavily armed police response to those protesting the fatal shooting of Brown, an unarmed black teen, by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9.

But strong groundwork laid by one law enforcement association may help prevent a major rollback—at least for now. The National Tactical Officers Association, which represents the SWAT teams on many police forces, has been one of the loudest voices in the ongoing debate.

The police have to be one step ahead of the criminal element, have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

NTOA says the benefits of equipping police with military surplus equipment outweigh the risks, arguing that problems such as those in Ferguson can best be solved through training. Also, it says, most of the items being exchanged through the Pentagon’s weapons-transfer program aren’t as imposing as the mine-resistant vehicles that drove down the streets of Ferguson.

“The police have to be one step ahead of the criminal element, have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. You don’t want a community to be taken over by one or many criminals,” NTOA Executive Director Mark Lomax told The Daily Beast in August. “We’re definitely for equipping our law enforcement officials out there properly, with proper training and proper policies.”

Making the Case

Though members of both parties in Congress have expressed interest in defunding the Pentagon 1033 Program, no legislation has been introduced to change it. An executive action by President Barack Obama to improve oversight of the program is in the works, though that action is far less drastic than the proposals lawmakers floated last summer.

Part of the reason for the change in tone, according to Lomax, is that NTOA made an effective case against gutting the program. The association provided Congress with facts about the program (for example, NTOA says that 95 percent of the equipment given to police departments through the program is “nontactical”) and letters of support from police departments across the country.

“When [lawmakers] looked at it holistically, did they want to take away equipment and technology from frontline security?” Lomax said in The Daily Beast Tuesday. “We were able, hopefully, to educate those policy makers… As of December of this year, cooler heads have prevailed.”

(Jamelle Bouie/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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