Detroit Police Move to Limit Military Gear Acquisition

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners has passed a motion that aims to increase oversight of the department’s involvement in the 1033 Program. The goal: set boundaries because residents’ lives are at stake.

(TNS) — The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners passed a motion in hopes to increase oversight of Detroit Police Department's military gear acquisition.

The motion, passed last week, will allow the board to draft a policy that seeks to administer DPD's involvement in the U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 Program, which allows “law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes” from the federal government surplus, according to its website.

This includes weapons, vehicles, robots and other tactical equipment.

“This is the type of equipment used during wartime,” District 5 Commissioner Willie Burton, who proposed the motion, said. “We must set boundaries. Residents' lives are at stake.” Burton said he hopes a policy can be drafted before the holiday season. He’d like for the policy to define what DPD can and cannot obtain through the 1033 Program, and for the policy to obligate DPD to gain the board’s permission prior to making acquisitions through the program.

Burton proposed the motion at a board meeting on Thursday. It passed with a 5-4 vote. 

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is DPD’s civilian oversight body. It has the ability to establish policies, rules and regulations “in consultation with the Chief of Police, and with the approval of the Mayor,” according to the Detroit City Charter.  

During the BOPC meeting, Chair and District 4 Commissioner Willie Bell called the proposal “slightly out of order” and emphasized the fact that “we (the BOPC) don’t set policy by ourselves. It’s a joint effort with the chief...and also the mayor.”

Bell told the Free Press that militarization of DPD is "not a concern, and that's why I voted no. We have more important issues to address besides this particular matter."

DPD declined comment Monday.

DPD has through the 1033 Program acquired two observation helicopters, a utility truck, an armored truck, two multi-mission tactical robots, 14 cases of demolition charge, 38 thermal and reflex sights and dozens of computer systems, according to Department of Defense data published in Bridge Michigan. DPD on Monday could not confirm all of the information published in the report.

The Department of Defense began archiving records of transfers in 2014, according to Bridge Michigan. 

District 1 Commissioner Darryl Brown said he voted to approve the motion because the public should know what military-style equipment DPD is obtaining from the federal government. 

“I feel great about the fact that it has passed,” Brown said. “I feel it’s given us some leverage in a new way in that we can change the paradigm in which they (DPD) are grabbing this equipment.”

Brown said there is certainly military equipment DPD needs, like robots for bomb threats, armored vehicles and helicopters. 

“I think we have to be mindful of the fact that we are a border city and first responders have to be ready to deal with disasters and dangerous situations,” Brown said.

However, Brown said, DPD should not have the ability to obtain machine guns and grenade launchers from the federal government without going through the BOPC. President Donald Trump reauthorized local departments to obtain grenade launchers through the 1033 Program in 2017, reversing Former President Barack Obama’s prohibition in 2015. 

About 8,200 federal, state and law enforcement agencies across the U.S. participate in the 1033 Program. Based on initial acquisition value, the total amount of equipment transferred since the program’s inception in 1990 is $7.4 billion, according to the Department of Defense. 

Burton said in the wake of this year’s protests that resulted in police violence in Detroit and 10 years after the death of Aiyana Jones, who died by submachine gun fire accidentally shot by a Detroit police officer during a raid, a policy tightening DPD’s ability to obtain equipment through the 1033 Program can prevent DPD from acting like “an unchecked paramilitary group.”

"I'm shocked we've gone so long without a local policy on the 1033 Program," Burton said. "We have to bring residents' voices into the conversation, while also working with the mayor and police chief on this policy."

Bell, the BOPC chair, said he doesn't feel that it's necessary to create a local policy regarding DPD and the 1033 Program. 

"Nothing is going to change. (DPD) is not engaging in pursuing military equipment," he said. "Commissioner Burton has a history of responding to issues that don't have any merit as to what we're engaging in as far as the Board of Police Commissioners or the Detroit Police Department."

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