FRANKFORT—State lawmakers are expressing concern over the increasing militarization of local police departments in Kentucky and across the U.S., but legislative options to stem the unmitigated flow of military surplus gear to law enforcement agencies are unclear.
The joint Committee on Local Government heard testimony Wednesday from Pete Kraska, chair of Eastern Kentucky University graduate school of justice studies, and Rick Sanders, chief of Jeffersontown Police. They debated the merits and flaws of a controversial Department of Defense program known as “1033,” which hands out unused military gear to state and local law enforcement agencies around the country.
Kentucky Public Radio previously reported that since 2006 the 1033 program has disbursed tens of millions of dollars worth of military-grade gear to 100 Kentucky counties through a coordinator in the Kentucky State Police. The gear ranges from socks and boots to armored cars and assault rifles, all of it transferred with little to no state-level oversight or requisite training.
Sanders, who also serves as head of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, said the only reason that the hearing even occurred is because of police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in August.
He said he was open to tweaking how law enforcement agencies in Kentucky utilize the equipment, and advocated for mandatory training for officers and to hold them accountable when it’s abused.
“With that, I don’t think we’ll need to restrict their use of the equipment, but we’ll use the equipment more smartly,” said Sanders, who was previously a Drug Enforcement Administration official.
But Kraska contended that the real issue is the misapplication of military weapons, arguing that they’re deployed not for large scale civil unrest, but for “no-knock” raids on homes usually for low-level drug offenders.
“What my research has documented quantitatively and demonstrated conclusively is that’s not how these are being used for the most part,” he said. “Remember that those incidents happen in most communities never. Never.”
A 2013 report by the ACLU titled “War Comes Home” found that, out of 800 SWAT raids across a sampling of 20 local, state and federal agencies, 62 percent were conducted to serve a drug warrant, yet 36 percent found no contraband of any kind. It also stated that less than 7 percent of the raids were to address hostage situations.
The ACLU report said SWAT raids, and by extension the military gear used by them, are disproportionately deployed against people of color, which neither the committee or the speakers addressed.
Kraska echoed the larger sentiment of that report, chronicling for lawmakers what he described as the erosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which delineated stark separation of powers between the U.S. military and civilian police forces. Beginning in earnest in the Reagan Administration, he said, the War on Drugs catalyzed what he described as “an increasingly blurry distinction” between the two powers.
The amendments to that law “allowed for weapons transference programs like 1033,” Kraska said, which correlated with a rise in SWAT team activity nationally.
Kraska and Sanders found common ground on several issues, however, voicing support for proper training of 1033 equipment, increased oversight and investment in community policing to strike a balance between continued participation in the program and responsible policing.
“There might be room in the middle here,” Sanders said. “The 1033 process takes an application, has to go through a review committee, maybe we need to look at tightening that up. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said he nor any of his colleagues on the committee are proposing legislation to tweak the program. But he noted that Allen County received 16 M-16 assault rifles through the program, and reiterated the debate’s mantra of balance.
“Other than the chief of the local police department, who’s going to be very biased, we’re missing someone who’s not biased, who says ‘perhaps that’s a misapplication,” Riggs said. “And you don’t need 16 [assault rifles], maybe you need three. So I see that missing in this scenario.”
But Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Taylor Mill who is running as lieutenant governor alongside Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, said that the program already has some level of oversight.
“Everyone of these cities, every chief I know of, answers to a mayor and a city council who are elected by the people between every two and four years,” he said. “We’ve got to be very careful dictating on high what has to happen locally because people understand their situations better than we particularly do here in Frankfort.”
Riggs added that he is open to discussing the matter at a future meeting of the committee, and indicated that possible measures could include a type of weapons “czar” to provide public accountability on the issue, as well as investment in community policing.
He said he will hold off on requesting any bills on the subject until he has conferred with colleagues.