On Thursday on Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is holding a hearing on the Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program. Also known as the “1033 program,” it was originally created to allow for the office to transfer excess Department of Defense property to law enforcement agencies across the United States. This program has been under intense scrutiny since this summer’s situation in Ferguson, Mo., when millions of Americans witnessed pictures and videos of police officers there wearing military style fatigues, carrying weapons and operating large armored vehicles.
As the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which represents more than 1,600 Special Weapons and Tactics units and tactical teams nationwide, I have seen firsthand the importance and value of this vital program. Therefore, I believe it is critical we properly review and reform it. To eliminate it all together — as some in Congress have called for — would be a grave mistake.
Law enforcement agencies in the United States have taken advantage of the 1033 program since its inception, but certainly at a greater frequency after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although the U.S. has seen a steady decrease in overall crime over the past decade, local law enforcement agencies have also been challenged with increasing threats, such as violent gang and extremist group activity, border security issues and active shooter scenarios in schools, businesses and other public venues.
As law enforcement agencies across the country began building out capabilities to meet such scenarios, a need was identified to standardize equipment, training, response plans and personnel credentialing to ensure uniformity in a multi-discipline, multi-jurisdictional unified response.
The federal government recommended that SWAT teams involved in critical incident response, specifically terrorism, include in their equipment inventory such items as night vision tools, ballistic vests and helmets, personal protection equipment such as protective clothing and respirators/gas masks, as well as impact and ballistic shields. Appropriate planning to such critical incidents also requires an increased capability in prevention, investigation and response efforts. Subsequently, the need for additional aircraft, vessels and armored rescue vehicles was identified. Much of this equipment already had a place in U.S. law enforcement. The 1033 program is critical to SWAT teams receiving this type of equipment.
However, with this equipment and expanded policing role, there must come some accountability for program participants to help ensure these law enforcement tools are used properly. Absent the implementation of proper training and equipment, law enforcement agencies run the risk of utilizing their tactical operations teams inappropriately, which can and has resulted in the loss of life and property, as well as the potential for mistrust by the public. A review of current policies and procedures as it relates to the program requirements of training and equipment utilization is warranted.
Additionally, creating national standards and a federally recognized mandatory training regimen could go a long way to ensuring this equipment is either used properly, or in some cases, not at all when other options would be more effective. To achieve these outcomes, we will continue to work with legislators in both the House and the Senate to ensure this equipment continues to be appropriately made available to law enforcement units in need.
American law enforcement officers recognize, probably more acutely than most, that they are not in conflict with the citizens they serve.
To the contrary, the brave men and women of this profession willingly place themselves between danger and the public every day and at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their families. In the wake of recent events, the public, for which law enforcement is charged with the solemn responsibility to protect, and Congress are right to call for a review and consider reforms of the 1033 program.
SWAT team members all across America support that goal, as long as those reforms allow us to effectively fulfill our mission of safely resolving critical incidents where the safety and security of the public is at stake.
Mark Lomax is the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a law enforcement membership organization representing more than 40,000 individual members and 1,600 tactical teams.