Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.
Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.
Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.
Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.
One other bill we know of was filed that would also address this problem. An ACLU-sponsored bill, SD1409/HD3075 “An Act relative to military grade controlled property” (filed by Sen. Mike Barrett (D-Lexington) and Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester)), would require a public meeting and a public vote, but does not effectively force the purchase to come out of municipal funds.
SD1409/HD3075 goes further than our bill in terms of the agencies it covers: It requires multi-jurisdictional law enforcement agencies such as the shadowy “law enforcement councils” and the State Police to obtain approval from the Executive Office of Public Safety before obtaining such equipment.
The equipment for which a public vote would be required also differs. SD1409/HD3075 includes everything on the Department of State Munitions Control List and the Department of Commerce Control List. This would appear, on first reading, to include a few small-scale police purchases like ankle monitors and handcuffs in among many more important inclusions. Our bill, HD430, enumerates a smaller list of particularly disturbing equipment, but would cover some items that appear to not be included in the federal lists, like short-range camera-equipped drones and IMSI catchers (also known as stingrays).
In Vermont, a new bill would require the approval of the Attorney-General for such acquisitions there, but again does not forbid receiving military equipment for free.
This being the first part of a two-year legislative session, we look forward to having discussions with the other bill, with the hope that Beacon Hill can pass smart, strong and comprehensive legislation on this issue. Especially if your legislator is on the Public Safety Committee, please call them and ask them to support H. 2169; and if you’d like to do more, and meet with your legislators on this issue, please give us a call.
This is the full text of our bill:
H2169 – An Act Assuring Municipal Control of Military Equipment Procurement by Local Law Enforcement
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:
SECTION 1. Section 53A½ of Chapter 44 of the Massachusetts General Laws shall be amended by adding the following paragraph after the current end of the text:
Except as provided below, and notwithstanding the provisions of section 53A of this chapter, no police department or regional police district in any city or town may apply to the United States Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice to seek or accept as gifts from these or any other parties, the following materials: Aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, bayonets, bombs, directed-energy weapons, grenade launchers, IMSI catchers, launch vehicles, mines, missiles, radioactive or nuclear weapons, rockets, silencers, torpedoes, toxicological agents (including chemical agents, biological agents, and associated equipment), or ultrasonic devices used for crowd dispersal. Such equipment can only be obtained upon the authorization of the mayor and city council, in a city, or the selectmen or other decision-making body, in a town.