TRENTON – Two bills sponsored by Senator Nia H. Gill and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg that would increase transparency and oversight of the federal Department of Defense 1033 program in New Jersey were approved today by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. The federal 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.
“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 make sure 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.”
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. Through correspondence with the Attorney General, she learned that law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have received over $50 million of dollars worth of military equipment through this program, with $30 million dollars worth of equipment coming between October 2013 and September 2014.
“Police departments are not military organizations. They are an integral part of the community and should operate in a way that builds trust and confidence in officers by the residents they are sworn to protect,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “The acquisition of military equipment by local agencies should be done with extreme care and under clear guidelines established by law. The decision to obtain any equipment through this program should be made by the local government, and approved only after the chief law enforcement officer of the state has determined that it is appropriate and necessary and that the department is trained for its use.”
The first bill (S-2364) 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 (S-2365) 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.
“These measures are commonsense and they are in line with changes to the program proposed by President Obama last week. But policing, as we know, is a community issue and it is our obligation to ensure there are clear policies in place to protect the safety of the public,” said Senator Gill. “The bills would give the public a voice in the process, allowing residents to weigh in on whether their local department should have riot shotguns or assault weapons, such as M16s or M14s. They would also allow the local governing body to decide whether the equipment is suitable for the town, and to consider the cost associated with acquiring it. If the local governing body after receiving input from the public approves, the Attorney General would make the final decision based on clear parameters established for the program.”
Both bills were approved by a vote of 5-0.