Md. bill would curb police use of military surplus equipment



ANNAPOLIS (March 11, 2021)—Law enforcement agencies in Maryland could be limited from obtaining certain military equipment via a federal surplus program under a bill that passed the state Senate last week.

SB0599, with sponsors Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, and Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore, is one legislative piece of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, which has been a key focus throughout the Maryland General Assembly this session.

Under this bill, law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from purchasing a weaponized aircraft, drone or vehicle; a destructive device; a firearm silencer; or a grenade launcher, according to the bill.

"Armed drones and other aircrafts that are armed, destructive devices and grenade launchers are not necessary for our state or local law enforcement agencies to accomplish their mission and their goal safely and have no purpose and or reason being in our streets and our communities," Smith said at a Feb. 3 Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing.

West explained that these weaponized aircrafts or vehicles are similar to the kinds of things you'd see military units utilizing in the Middle East, which is unnecessary for local policing.

"The weaponization is what I thought was unacceptable," West told Capital News Service.

A destructive device is considered an explosive material combined with a deliberate detonating system that is capable of causing injury to people or property.

Under current law, law enforcement agencies can't request a grenade launcher or firearms silencers as they're already illegal in Maryland, according to testimony supplied to lawmakers as information from the Maryland State Police.

As part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the 1033 program under the purview of the Defense Logistics Agency allows federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to receive surplus military equipment that has been turned in by U.S. military units around the world.

These federal, state and local law enforcement agencies only have to pay for the cost of shipping for the equipment.

In order for a local police or sheriff's department to participate in the program, a governor's appointed state coordinator must work with the agencies through certifying and approving their admission to the program.

Once they're approved, a local law enforcement agency can submit an online request to the state coordinator that justifies the request for the equipment they're seeking.

As of June 2020, there are about 8,200 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participating in the program from 49 states and four territories, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

Hawaii is the only state that doesn't participate in the program, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

"Between May 25th—which is the day of George Floyd's murder—to June 20 there have been 29 instances (nationally) of police using military-style vehicles at protests, 17 of which were obtained by the local law enforcement agencies through that 1033 program," Smith said the hearing.

The bill maintains current law that on or by Feb. 1 each year the Department of State Police is required to report to both the governor and General Assembly any law enforcement equipment acquisitions made through surplus programs from the preceding year.

The bill also keeps current policy that the Department of State Police puts a link to the Defense Logistics Agency's report of property transfers to law enforcement agencies in an easily accessible location on their website.

During federal fiscal year 2020, the Department of State Police advised that it received approximately $598,000 in equipment and supplies through surplus programs, according to a state legislative analysis.

A combined seven items were shipped to the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, Washington County Sheriff's Office and Montgomery County Police Department through the surplus program in 2020, according to a Defense Logistics Agency database.

Proponents of the bill expressed concern that law enforcement agencies having access to the equipment in the surplus program could lead to the over-militarization of police, which could also in turn make citizens more fearful.

"Our Coalition members appreciate that police officers have a hard job, however, they don't need tanks, grenade launchers and other sophisticated military equipment that is designed to be used on a battlefield," Cecilia Plante, co-chair of the Maryland Legislative Coalition, said in written testimony obtained by Capital News Service.

"Their job is to protect the peace, not make our streets into a war zone, people should not walk around scared because of an alarming overabundance of military-grade weapons," Plante added in her testimony.

However, John Nesky, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and chief of the Bowie Police Department explained that the equipment acquired from the surplus program would only be used in necessary situations.

"Be careful about oversimplifying the term militarization," Nesky told Capital News Service.

"It's not about the tool that you get, it's about how you use it," he added.

Nesky explained that departments acquire things like armored vehicles such as BearCats or Humvees from the surplus program for high-risk situations.

For example, these armored vehicles can be used to protect officers during a hostage situation or when a suspect has barricaded themselves into their home.

These vehicles could also be used in difficult weather conditions such as intense snow or flooding in a particular area.

After passing the Maryland Senate unanimously with a vote of 47-0 the bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

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