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 Assembly 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.
“Local police departments throughout the state have received various types of equipment through this program including first aid kits and office supplies, but also military assault weapons, armored vehicles and a grenade launcher. Undoubtedly, some of these supplies are useful to departments, particularly during times of fiscal constraint, but clearly some of the equipment appears more suitable for a war zone than for our neighborhoods,” said Senator Gill (D-Essex/Passaic). “We must ensure the equipment obtained through this program is appropriate for use by local departments, and these bills will create an oversight process for requests and transfers 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.
“Local police departments are an important part of the community and must operate in a way that builds trust and confidence in the officers by the residents they are sworn to protect,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Any acquisition of military equipment by a local agency must be done under defined guidelines established by law. The decision to obtain 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.
“The federal government has recognized a need for increased oversight of military equipment transfers to local police departments. We have a responsibility to make sure that clear policies are in place in New Jersey to protect the safety of the public,” said Senator Gill. “Locally, residents should have an opportunity to weigh in on whether their community’s police department should have riot shotguns or assault weapons, such as M16s or M14s. The governing body should then decide whether the equipment is appropriate for the town, taking into account a host of factors including the costs associated with acquiring and maintaining it. If the local governing body after receiving input from the public approves, the Attorney General should make the final decision based on defined parameters established for the program.”
The Senate approved both bills unanimously in December. The bills next go to the Assembly for consideration before heading to the governor’s desk.