Yesterday the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security heard testimony on S.1234/H.2144, an Act relative to military grade controlled property. The bill would institute basic transparency and oversight requirements to govern the way that state and local police obtain military grade equipment, as defined by federal statute.
The ACLU of Massachusetts submitted the following written testimony in support of the proposal.
Read more about the ACLU of Massachusetts’ work to end police militarization.
Dear Senator Timilty, Representative Naughton, and members of the committee:
Massachusetts must ensure that local communities and governments have the information they need to work with their police departments to allocate resources in a manner that respects public safety requirements, civil rights and civil liberties, and the priorities and unique circumstances of individual towns and cities. By instituting a public, democratic process for local law enforcement acquisitions of military grade weapons and equipment, An Act relative to military grade controlled property would be a critical first step toward meaningful transparency and accountability. We urgently need both in Massachusetts.
A 2014 report on the militarization of domestic police, published by the ACLU of Massachusetts, found that over the past two decades police in our state have been quietly amassing arsenals of military weapons and other powerful equipment, without public dialogue or democratic debate about the merits and drawbacks of this type of militarization. The report found, for example, that
[b]etween 1994 and 2009, 82 police departments and other authorized agencies in Massachusetts received 1,068 military weapons from the [Department of Defense]—including 486 fully automatic M-16 machine guns and 564 semi-automatic M-14s. While the State Police received the most weapons, departments in towns like Wellfleet, Medford, Duxbury, and Hamilton also obtained machine guns from the military, free of charge.
The town of West Springfield, Massachusetts, population 28,137, obtained two grenade launchers through the same military hand-me-down system, known as the 1033 program.
Despite the seriousness of these acquisitions, the transfer of powerful weapons like grenade launchers and machine guns to local law enforcement has occurred almost entirely in secret. When the Boston Globe surveyed twelve Massachusetts police departments about their participation in the military’s 1033 program, it found that not a single department had notified the public about its intent to acquire military equipment free of charge.
Recently, the federal government has also raised concerns about local police militarization—including concerns about the mechanics of the process, the lack of local accountability, and the end results. In early 2015 the Obama administration pledged to examine the federal 1033 program and if necessary, make changes. In May 2015, President Obama’s working group produced a report containing recommendations subsequently adopted by the White House. The new rules bar the federal government from giving state and local police certain military weapons, including bayonets, grenade launchers, and large caliber weapons and ammunition. But the rules allow for the continued transfer of specialized firearms and ammunition, explosives and pyrotechnics, and riot equipment—albeit while urging law enforcement agencies “to give careful consideration to the appropriateness of acquiring such equipment for their communities.”
The White House is exactly right on the last point, but a mere suggestion to local police that they involve communities in conversations and decision-making processes about weapons and equipment acquisitions is not enough. The bill before you, An Act relative to military grade controlled property, would establish a measure of public process and authorization before a local police department accepts or purchases military grade equipment, as defined by existing federal law. Specifically, the police department seeking such equipment would be required to provide prior notice to local officials, and the acquisition would be subject to a vote of the local governing body after a public hearing. Similar transparency and accountability mechanisms would be required of multi-jurisdictional law enforcement agencies and the State Police if they seek to acquire military grade equipment.
Importantly, the Act relative to military grade controlled property does not bar local law enforcement from obtaining equipment, or in any other way restrict law enforcement from doing their jobs. It simply requires that state and local police engage in a transparent, accountable, and democratic process before acquiring military equipment. This necessary reform is a step in the right direction, to ensure that our great Commonwealth remains both safe and free for future generations. The ACLU of Massachusetts asks that your committee forward the bill with a positive report.
Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty Program Director
Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel
Donovan Slack, Boston.com, “Even small localities got big guns; Some regulations for police unenforced,” June 15, 2009, available at http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/06/15/details_emerge_on_distribution_of_military_weapons_in_mass/.
White House Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, “Recommendations Pursuant to Executive Order 13688: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisitions,” May 2015, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/le_equipment_wg_final_report_final.pdf.