Massachusetts should follow suit by passing bills allowing public input on transfers of military equipment to state and local police.
Republican Governor Chris Christie has signed legislation making New Jersey the first state to require local, democratic approval before law enforcement agencies can receive surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense. The legislation—signed during Sunshine Week, a national celebration of government transparency and accountability that runs March 15-21—is a major victory for government transparency, democratic accountability, and the effort to demilitarize local police forces.
In recent decades, New Jersey law enforcement agencies have acquired nearly $33 million worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles. Under the new law, police departments must not only notify local governments of their intention to obtain used military gear, but also receive their explicit approval before doing so.
While New Jersey is the first to enact democratic accountability and transparency mechanisms related to Department of Defense hand-me-downs to state and local police, it is not alone among states grappling with the impact of police militarization.
For years, police departments in Massachusetts too have acquired surplus military equipment under the military's 1033 program, often in the dark and absent public input. These transfers of military equipment to our state and local police forces have taken place alongside a shift in training and attitude among police, moving towards a militarized, "Us vs. Them" mentality. These policies threaten individual rights, community relations with the police, and public safety.
To learn the history of police militarization in Massachusetts please see Cops in the Commonwealth: The pitfalls of militarized, federalized policing.
As communities throughout Massachusetts—including communities of color, which are often disparately impacted by militarized policing—are calling for justice, our state must follow New Jersey's lead and implement basic transparency and accountability measures to deal with the growing threat of police militarization.
Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) is leading the way by introducing legislation that will provide communities with a clear opportunity to weigh in on and shape any further militarization of their police departments: "An Act relative to military grade controlled property" (H.2144). State senator Michael Barrett (D-Lexington) introduced a Senate companion, SD1409.
New Jersey has shown us that democratic accountability and transparency about police practices are commonsense policies that can be championed by all elected officials, regardless of political affiliation. Massachusetts should act quickly to follow suit by passing H.2144 and SD1409.