A new bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, focusing on the demilitarization of local law enforcement agencies is slated to be introduced before the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday.
Johnson's hope is that the bi-partisan legislation will receive enough support and changes will be made to the Pentagon's 1033 Program, which gives military-grade weapons and equipment to state and local law enforcement departments for free.
The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014 limits the type of equipment that local agencies can request, such as:
• Automatic weapons that are .50-caliber or higher
• Tactical vehicles, including multi-wheeled vehicles, armored vehicles, and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs
• Drones that are armored, weaponized or both
• Grenades, including flash-bang grenades, stun grenades and grenade launchers
• Long range acoustic devices
Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett doesn't exactly back up this portion of the bill. While he states that vehicles such as the MRAP are designed for wars and have no place on the streets of Rockdale County, he does believe that each local law enforcement agency has to decide what equipment would be best to use to combat the crime in that community.
If a local agency deems one of the banned items necessary for the type of crime in the community, that could end up costing the taxpayers in that community money, said Levett.
"Now, we have to go through the local budget and find money to purchase the equipment when we could get if for free," he said.
Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson echoes the words of Levett.
"It may not be that every department needs it, but some departments might," Wilson said about the use of assault rifles and other would-be banned equipment under the bill.
But Wilson also points out that the use of heavier weapons by local police is partly due to people on the street using stronger weapons than were once used by suspects. In the 1970s, when Wilson was a police officer working in DeKalb County, a six shooter was all he needed, but the times have changed.
"People have a problem with police using assault rifles, (but) that's what the public's got," said Wilson. Police officers may encounter an assault rifle threat two or three times a week, he said. "That's what we run into out here. It's just a way to keep balance. I wish we were still in those (old) times, but those times are gone."
Wilson is frustrated Johnson didn't consult with him or Levett before moving forward with this bill since it'll directly affect both law enforcement agencies in Johnson's Congressional Fourth District. He thinks it's a knee-jerk reaction to the national media spotlight that has been put on local police after protestors for Michael Brown were met with militarized equipment by local law enforcement in Ferguson, MO.
"I'm disappointed in Hank Johnson," Wilson said. "For him to be our representative, this seems out of character for him to not talk to the police chiefs in his own area."
Johnson will officially introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014 bill Sept. 16 when the House reconvenes its session. Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho will be a co-sponsor.
Both parties of the House have expressed interest in the bill, said Andy Phelan, communications director for Johnson, but it's hard to determine the actual interest until the bill is on the floor and everyone is in the room.
"We're continuing to work to get more co-sponsors," he said.
Congressman Johnson's proposed legislation will also add requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment given to local agencies and implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't sell the surplus equipment they receive.
Johnson first expressed interest in reforming the 1033 program in March when he co-wrote an opinion piece about his desire to reform the program.
"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," Johnson said in a press release announcing the bill Aug. 20. "Before another small town's police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America."
The RCSO has received vehicles, guns, clothing, gas masks and other equipment through the 1033 Program. It hasn't received any equipment since Levett became the sheriff in January 2013.
Shortly after Levett became sheriff, an internal audit was conducted and some of the equipment the RCSO had acquired through the program was deemed unnecessary to keep because it either wasn't being used, said RCSO spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Arnold.
The department currently has three hummers and 14 M-14 assault rifles, which were used for honor guard, in its inventory. The department is in the process of returning the M-14s back to the U.S. Department of Defense.
The city police department has received M-16 assault rifles through the 1033 program as well.