Senate votes to limit some military equipment transfers to police departments

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The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to put some limits on the transfer of military equipment from the Defense Department to state and local police departments, even as it rejected a more stringent measure aimed at preventing “weapons of war,” in the words of one senator, from being used by police.

The votes, which were cast on competing amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, came as the country grapples with how to reform police departments in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the corresponding protests across the country that have highlighted concerns about rough practices by heavily fortified police.

The measure that was defeated was a bipartisan proposal from GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California. It would have prohibited “the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies, including tear gas, armor-piercing firearms and ammunition, bayonets, grenade launchers and grenades, combat tracked vehicles, and drones,” according to a summary of the amendment.

Needing 60 votes to pass, it failed on a vote of 51 yes votes and 49 no votes. Two other Republicans voted in favor of the amendment: Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, both who are facing tight reelection battles.

“Weapons of war don’t belong in our local police departments and should never be used against the American people,” said Schatz, the chief author of the measure, in a statement. “As we see our communities turning into what looks more like a war zone, it’s clear that we need to fix this. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that giving local law enforcement military equipment such as bayonets, grenade launchers, armor-piercing bullets, and tear gas is immoral and does nothing to keep people safe.”

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, complained Schatz’s amendment went too far and would make it impossible for the transfer program, known as the 1033 program, to work.

“Since the program’s creation in 1990, more than $7 billion worth of vehicles, desks, boots, computers, and more has been responsibly recycled to local law enforcement. This is equipment the military no longer needs, that these agencies would be purchasing anyway. The equipment is always demilitarized so that it’s appropriate for public safety use,” Inhofe said on the floor. “For years, local law enforcement has been asked to do more with less, and, now as they face liberal calls to defund the police — we need to be continuing this transparent, responsible program.”

A spokeswoman for Inhofe said Schatz’s amendment would have “added layers of bureaucracy that would essentially kill the ability to transfer equipment of any type.”

She said Inhofe’s amendment puts “narrow limitations” on transfers and would prevent “weaponized tracked combat vehicles, weaponized drones, lethal grenades, and bayonets” from going to police departments. Further, the amendment requires any departments receiving military equipment to be trained to “respect the rights of citizens under the Constitution of the United States and de-escalation of force.”

Inhofe’s amendment was adopted 90 to 10.

Once the Senate passes the NDAA, likely later this week, it will need to be reconciled with its House counterpart before being sent to President Donald Trump who has said he opposes the bill over a different issue related to renaming military bases named for Confederate leaders.

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