Q&A: Rep. Hank Johnson on ending police militarization

The Georgia congressman discusses his legislation and the momentum it’s gained since events in Ferguson

Hank Johnson may have been best known as one of two Buddhists in the House (the other being Hawaii’s Colleen Hanabusa). But the lawmaker, who has served Georgia’s 4th congressional district since 2007, has set his sights on reforming the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, the mechanism through which local law enforcement agencies can request and obtain military surplus equipment. The program entered the national spotlight by way of events in Ferguson, Missouri where police countered protesters with massive armored trucks, M4 carbine rifles, body armor, and uniforms based on a U.S. Marine Corps camouflage pattern. We talked to the veteran Democrat about how he began his crusade to demilitarize police forces, and the reaction he has received post-Ferguson.

How long has the bill been in the works, and what first gave you the idea to craft it?
I first got interested in militarization in law enforcement after a Christmas parade [in Georgia] last year that I marched in. I happened to be marching behind the vehicle that the mayor was seated in, and it was a great, big piece of military equipment, and it was a very small municipality. As I walked in back of the equipment, it was so massive I was in awe of it. I couldn’t see over the top or sides, I couldn’t see anything–just a great, big, hulking piece of metal. I asked my staff to look into how that equipment was acquired, so they started looking at it and we stumbled across the 1033 program. We did an op-ed with a gentleman by the name of Michael Shank, which appeared in USA Today back in March, and it was around that time that we started drafting the legislation. It took us up to the point of shortly before we recessed for the August break–it was at that point that we finally had it in such a shape that we were ready to file it–but we decided to wait until the Congress was back in session instead of filing in the last couple days so that, quite frankly, we’d get the most attention paid to it. And then little did we know that we’d see the 1033 program on display in Ferguson, Missouri. Since that time, we’ve fine-tuned the legislation that we had ready to file–we’ve perfected it.

What’s changed since the draft you almost filed before the August break?
We’ve gotten a couple of Republicans to give us their insight, and based on their insights, we incorporated those into the bill to make it more palatable. One was the issue of aircrafts, because the original bill prohibited the transfer through the 1033 program of aircrafts, so we fine-tuned that to eliminate certain aircrafts from the prohibition. We heard from another Republican lawmaker about the accountability portion of the bill, and we changed it to reflect that particular congressman’s suggestion. It had to do with the banning of a law enforcement agency from receiving 1033 surplus equipment if it could not account for equipment that it has already received.

I wanted to ask specifically about issues like aircrafts–why limit the transfers of vehicles or non-lethal items? The bill mentions Long Range Acoustic Devices, for example.
Yeah, stun grenades, silencers, those are not typical tools that local law enforcement uses. If they feel the need to have that type of equipment, they can always purchase it through their regular process, where a law enforcement agency would have a portion of the municipal or county budget. You have the purchase of that equipment being overseen by the governmental agency that oversees the police department–as opposed to the 1033 program, which allows the law enforcement agency to petition directly to the Department of Defense for the property to be transferred, free, as surplus property. The citizens are stuck with the repair bills and the maintenance costs, and also, what do we do when we want to dispose of this property because we find it is no longer suitable for our purposes? So to prevent this kind of weaponry from falling into the wrong civilian hands, this is why this legislation is so important.

The understanding that I have of the current 1033 program is that if precincts aren’t using equipment, they can return that equipment to the 1033 catalog.
There’s no requirement now that they do so. Under the legislation, that would be their sole option in terms of disposal of the property. It would prohibit the sale at a public auction of this military-grade weaponry.

Is there any sort of incentive included for police departments to return certain types of equipment that they already have?
No, there’s no such incentives–but that’s a thought. First suggestion that I’ve heard. We’ll give that some thought. And by the way, if we incorporate that into the bill, that was something that I came up with independently. [Laughs]

A lot of police departments try to justify their ownership of certain types of military equipment by claiming deterrence. Many say they’re just adding tools to their protect-and-serve arsenal–options to have just in case. Are those pieces of equipment acceptable under either of those definitions?
I think that if citizens, through their local governing authority that they have elected, approve of the purchase of this kind of equipment based on a need that the local law enforcement agency provides to them, that’s their choice. They can order the equipment, take possession, and be on the hook for the cost of maintenance, repairs, and all of the things that come with the acquisition of the equipment. But for the law enforcement itself, without any input from the governing authority, to petition directly to the DoD for surplus military-grade weaponry and then take possession of it, and then the citizens are strapped with the cost of maintaining the equipment, and then the local government authority declaring the equipment to be surplus and then selling it out on the open market for pennies to the highest bidder, and that equipment then ending up in the hands of perhaps those who we would not want to have it, that process is what I’m trying to make sure that we don’t allow to happen.

You’re calling for a stop to military surplus in police departments. Is there anything you think police should start doing to be more effective?
I do believe that the Ferguson event shows why it’s so important for law enforcement agencies to not have equipment that they’re not trained on. Ferguson showed us such a situation where this equipment, which is being acquired for the public safety, actually creates an unsafe situation. The use of that equipment in Ferguson actually was like pouring gasoline on a fire. First, you have citizens coming out–they’re angry, they’re upset, and they’re protesting what they feel to be an unjustified homicide. They go around and protest, and they are met with a militarized police response that then inflames the situation even more. That is why the state of Missouri police agency was ordered to take over from the city of Ferguson, and they restored order, but we see how a police overreaction can actually be harmful to the community. It’s a two-edged sword when you have that equipment, if you’re not trained on how to operate it.

Has it been easy or difficult to get other congressmen to sign on?
I think that there’s a great deal of thought still going into it by various offices. We’ve received a number of offices that looked again at the proposed legislation and decided, “Okay, well, yeah, we do want to get involved now that we’ve seen the results of militarization.” There has been more support manifested for the bill and more interest for supporting the bill.

So what’s next?
I’ve been in conversations with ranking member Adam Smith [the Democrat who represents Washington’s 9th District] on the House Armed Services Committee about requesting a hearing before the committee on the 1033 program. If we get to have a hearing, that’ll be fine, but we will also be filing the legislation as we return to session. And we’ll continue to try to get more co-sponsors and try to build up momentum for the bill to have a committee hearing, and then be brought to the full floor for a vote.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
This is not an anti-law enforcement piece of legislation. I’m pro-law enforcement, always have been and always will be. I think that law enforcement [agencies are] the best judge of what they need to do their jobs to protect and serve the people. However, they should not have the ability to acquire certain equipment for free and then strap the citizens with first, the heavy-handed use of the equipment, and then the cost of repairing and maintaining the equipment. That’s like putting an Uzi in the hands of a nine-year-old child. The girl was not strong enough–she was incapable of controlling the weaponry – and the result was a tragedy. We really want to prevent tragedies like that from occurring on the streets of America.