The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to stop and reverse a trend in Tennessee toward what critics characterize as police “militarization.”
Brian Kelsey, a Republican attorney from Germantown, has filed legislation for the General Assembly to take up this year that would prohibit “state and local law enforcement agencies from owning or using certain military vehicles, aircraft, and weaponry.” The bill — SB0039 — would also require “the divestiture or destruction of such vehicles, aircraft, or weaponry” by January 1, 2016.
“I think we can support both our police officers and our citizens by ensuring that our police officers are not viewed as the enemy. This bill is an important step in that direction,” Kelsey recently told the Johnson City Press. He said while he hasn’t spoken with Tennessee law enforcement officials yet, the bill would start that conversation.
Military weapons are defined in the bill as “machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, recoilless rifles, and crew-served weapons.” Magazine-fed, gas-operated, air-cooled rifles and carbines designed for automatic or semi-auto fire — such as M16s — as well as grenade launchers adapted for non-lethal rounds, have been exempted.
Since at least 1997, law enforcement agencies nationwide have received surplus military equipment to aid counter-drug and terror operations under the 1033 program, established under that year’s National Defense Authorization Act. About 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have participated in the program, and have received more than $5.1 billion in military equipment — including sand bags, medical supplies, cold weather gear and maintenance equipment, but also vehicles and weapons.
Earlier this year News Channel 5 reported 30 Tennessee agencies — including departments in Lebanon, Hendersonville and La Vergne — were the recent recipients of mine-resistant vehicles. Additionally, an order error caused the McMinn County Sheriff’s Department — which employs 31 officers and investigators — to receive an order of more than 150 firearms, including 71 M16 rifles and 71 .45-caliber pistols.
Police officials have long held they need the equipment in case of emergency situations, such as natural disasters or stand-offs with armed suspects
However, accountability of issued equipment has been a nationwide problem, with many departments misplacing military equipment. For example, it took a small-town police department in Arkansas a week to even notice someone had stolen their Humvee from the station’s parking lot.
The Pentagon suspended the national program in June as a result of the myriad of accountability problems. They announced the program would remain suspended until participating law enforcement agencies complied with a request for a comprehensive audit of all equipment acquired under the program.
And earlier this month President Barack Obama announced he was creating a working group of cabinet officials to review the program and recommend reforms as to what equipment is proper for use by civilian law enforcement departments, as well as to ensure agencies receive proper training.
Several Tennessee agencies have been guilty of misplacing acquired military gear.
A Tennessee comptroller report from 2008 found that between January 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007 the town of Surgoinsville received $872,580 in surplus military equipment, but couldn’t locate $137,104 of the equipment — including a sandblaster, a plasma cutter and nine central processing units.
Last September, the Tennessean reported that four of the state’s 232 participating departments had been suspended as a result of missing equipment: the Tennessee Highway Patrol for two missing M-14 rifles; the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for a stolen M-16 that was later recovered; and the Columbia and Claiborne Police Departments for one missing M-14 each.
Additionally, this July, the state put its LESO coordinator on administrative leave after it was discovered he hadn’t notified the Department of General Services Tennessee had been suspended from the program for two months the previous year. The state announced at the time they planned to conduct a full review of the program.
A proposal introduced in the California State Legislature this month would require law enforcement agencies get permission from the legislative body governing their jurisdiction prior to receiving military equipment from the federal government.
A complete list of all military equipment issued under the program from 2006 through April 23, 2014, compiled and organized by NPR, can be viewed here.