Oversight of Military Equipment Issued to Local Law Enforcement

Johnson & DeAngelo Legislative Package to Enhance Oversight of Military Equipment Issued to Local Law Enforcement Agencies by Fed Govt Clears Assembly Panel

(TRENTON) - An Assembly panel on Monday approved a two-bill legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson and Wayne DeAngelo to create greater oversight of military equipment distributed to local law enforcement agencies by the federal government.

The first bill (A-3754) requires the Attorney General to direct the Office of Emergency Management to review the transfer of surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies in New Jersey under the federal Department of Defense program commonly referred to as the "1033 program." 

The bill is sponsored by Johnson (D-Bergen) and DeAngelo (Mercer/Middlesex).

"The images of police officers using military equipment in response to protests in Ferguson have raised serious concerns about the use of weapons meant for the battlefield in our communities," said Johnson. "Considering the dangerous potential of these weapons, it is wise to have the Attorney General, as the chief law enforcement officer of the state, directly oversee how the program operates in the state to ensure that these weapons are indeed needed and being used appropriately." 

"Police officers have a difficult job and we certainly want them to be well-equipped when facing off against the criminal element. But we have to make sure there is an actual need for this type of equipment, which in the wrong hands, can end up compromising the safety of the public and the officers," said DeAngelo. "The state Attorney General can ensure that requests for military-grade weapons are justified and that law enforcement agencies are properly trained on how to use them."

Federal law authorizes the transfer of military equipment that might otherwise be destroyed to law enforcement agencies in the country free of charge. Under the 1033 program, the equipment must be used for bona fide law enforcement purposes, particularly counter-drug and counter-terrorism.

To acquire this equipment, a law enforcement agency must first be approved by the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), the federal agency which oversees the program, as well as by a state coordinator who is appointed by the governor of each state. The state coordinator is responsible for ensuring the program is not abused by participating law enforcement agencies. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management in the Division of State Police serves as the state coordinator. 

Under the bill, the review must include a historical overview of the operation of the 1033 program in the state and an analysis of the current policies on the distribution of equipment, and whether this distribution correlates to the needs of the requesting law enforcement agency. Based on the review, the Attorney General would have to consult with the Superintendent of State Police, the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice, and the county prosecutors, to determine if applicable policies, procedures, and guidelines currently governing the program should be revised. 

The bill also requires the Attorney General to directly oversee the transfer of surplus federal military equipment to county and municipal law enforcement agencies in the state. Approval would be based on criteria developed by the Attorney General, including whether there is a need for the equipment by the local law enforcement agency; whether specialized training is necessary for safe usage of the equipment; and the extent of equipment storage and maintenance requirements.

The bill also requires the Attorney General to submit to the governor and the Legislature annual reports detailing these transfers, as well as state suspensions from the program.

The second bill (A-3901), sponsored by Johnson, would require that applications for participation in the federal 1033 program be approved by the appropriate local government agency.

"If this equipment is going to be used in local policing work, then the local government bodies should have a say," said Johnson. "This provides another set of eyes to ensure that any request by a police department for high-grade weapons and equipment is actually needed and used responsibly."

Currently, local law enforcement agencies must request enrollment through the state coordinator and the Defense Logistics Agency Law Enforcement Support Office. The acquisition of property through the program or the transfer between law enforcement agencies of property obtained through the program must also be approved by state and federal authorities. The program procedures do not require local law enforcement officials to obtain the approval of the governing body of a local unit before submitting an application to enroll in, or acquire property, through the 1033 program. 

Under the bill, an application for the enrollment in the 1033 program would have to be approved by a resolution adopted by a majority of the full membership of the governing body prior to submission to the state coordinator. The bill also requires the actual acquisition of property through the 1033 program to be approved by a resolution adopted by the full membership of the governing body.

Both bills were released by the Law and Public Safety Committee.