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Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex/Passaic) listening to public testimony at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

 TRENTON – Senator Nia H. Gill today introduced two bills to increase transparency and oversight of the federal Department of Defense 1033 program in New Jersey. The program provides for the transfer of surplus military equipment from the federal government to local law enforcement agencies in the state at little to no cost.

The use of military equipment by local law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown, including the deployment of tanks on the streets in demonstration areas, brought increased public scrutiny to the 1033 program and raised questions about the appropriate use of equipment obtained through the program. In the weeks following the events in Ferguson, Senator Gill sought information from the state Attorney General’s office on the operation of the federal program in New Jersey and the oversight procedures that governed it. The Senator said the bills introduced today are the beginning of a process to establish clear oversight of the program, which will be informed in part by information provided last week by Acting Attorney General John Hoffman in response to her requests.

“Law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have received millions of dollars worth of military equipment through this program. While this has allowed agencies to obtain useful equipment they otherwise may not have been able to afford, it has also resulted in the transfer of armored vehicles, a grenade launcher and military assault weapons to local departments. These are items that appear suitable for war zones rather than our neighborhood streets,” said Senator Gill (D-Essex). “In order to ensure that the equipment transferred is appropriate for use by local agencies, we must ensure strict oversight of the program at both the state and local level.”

From Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 11, 2014, more than $30 million worth of equipment was transferred to New Jersey law enforcement agencies, according to the Attorney General’s office. The equipment received by New Jersey departments during the course of the program’s operation has ranged from first aid kits and office supplies, to armored vehicles, military rifles and a grenade launcher, according to published reports. New Jersey has been suspended from the program three times since 2010, according to the Attorney General’s office. The most recent suspension was on March 4, 2014 for failure to complete an annual inventory; the state was reinstated on July 2, 2014 after submitting a corrective action plan.

“The bills introduced today are the beginning of a process to establish clear oversight, accountability and transparency of the program at all levels,” said Senator Gill. “Any time a request for military equipment is made by a department there should be a review by local and state officials as to the appropriateness of the transfer. Clearly, some of this equipment could prove beneficial to local agencies, particularly in times of fiscal constraint. But there are also serious questions about the suitability of housing and deploying certain military equipment in our communities.”

In order to participate in the program, local law enforcement agencies must request enrollment though the State Coordinator (currently the Office of Emergency Management in the NJ State Police) and the Defense Logistics Agency, the federal agency which oversees the program. Federal and state officials must approve the transfer of equipment to agencies. However, current procedures do not require approval of the local governing body. The first bill would require that an application for enrollment in the program by a county or municipal law enforcement agency be approved by a resolution adopted by a majority of the full membership of the local governing body prior to its submission to the state coordinator. The legislation requires the acquisition of property through the program to be approved by the governing body in the same manner.

The second bill would require direct oversight of the program in New Jersey by the Attorney General.  It would require the Attorney General to review each request for equipment by local law enforcement agencies, and provide that approval of a transfer be based on criteria developed by the Attorney General to include (1) a showing of a demonstrated need for the equipment by a local law enforcement agency; (2) a determination of whether specialized training is necessary for safe usage of the equipment; and (3) equipment storage and maintenance requirements.

The legislation also establishes a review and reporting requirement. Under the bill, the Attorney General would direct the Office of Emergency Management to review the program in the state. Based on the findings, the Attorney General, in consultation with the State Police Superintendent, Director of Division of Criminal Justice and county prosecutors, would determine if the policies, procedures and guidelines governing the program should be revised. The Attorney General would be required to annually report to the Governor, the Senate President and Assembly Speaker on the program.