Demilitarize the police? Two Ohio lawmakers have this goal in mind

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: Demonstrators stand in front law enforcement who are holding a perimeter during protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

State Rep. Casey Weinstein recalls driving to work during the recent protests and being shocked at what he saw.

“When I would get down to Columbus, I saw these armored personnel carriers stationed downtown,” the Hudson Democrat said. “It just felt like I was entering a warzone. It felt escalatory. It felt worrying.

“Where are we? What country is this?”

Among the calls for police reform this year involves the concept of demilitarizing the police. For years, police departments in large cities and small have taken advantage of what is colloquially known as the “1033 Program.” This is a federal program that provides local law enforcement agencies with unused military equipment.

This ranges from armored vehicles and firearms to more mundane items like office chairs, cameras and hand tools. The Department of Defense has defended the program, which was first approved by Congress, as being a win-win for taxpayers and police departments alike. 

The equipment gets additional use after having been utilized by the military, and gives “law enforcement agencies additional support in counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations,” a DOD website reads

President Barack Obama curtailed the program in 2015, prohibiting certain items from being given to police departments such as grenade launchers and bayonets. 

President Donald Trump revoked his predecessor’s executive order in 2017. 

“These are weapons of war. I’m a veteran. I’ve wielded weapons,” Weinstein said. “It seemed very antithetical to me of what we’re trying to go for — which is deescalation, which is community policing, which is conversation.”

Weinstein and colleague Rep. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus, got to work researching the 1033 Program. Weinstein and Crawley learned another state legislature, in Montana, had passed a law several years ago to restrict which types of equipment can be transferred to police departments in Big Sky Country. The two Democrats used that law as inspiration to sponsor House Bill 721 with a similar goal in mind.

“Our police departments are tasked with protecting and serving, and we have to address how the ‘militarization’ of our police departments play a role in the breakdown of police-community relations,” Crawley said in a news release. 

Crawley said this equipment may lead officers to “adopt a warrior mindset where the public is the enemy rather than the people they serve.”

HB 721 does not wholly prohibit Ohio law enforcement agencies from participating in the 1033 Program. Instead, it outlines a number of items that agencies would not be able to receive from any federal military equipment surplus program.

These include any armored/weaponized drone; combat aircraft; grenades and grenade launchers; silencers; and weaponized armored vehicles. 

Weinstein said he expects there to be some disagreement on curtailing Ohio’s involvement with the program, particularly from those who support law enforcement and are resistant to calls for reform.

The Summit County legislator considers himself a supporter, too.

“I come from a suburban district, and I think a lot of my area police departments are doing a phenomenal job at community policing,” Weinstein said, adding this can be done without military equipment.

Community policing is a policing philosophy that promotes community engagement, organizational strategies, and the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to address public safety issues.

The bill was introduced on July 1 and has not seen any other action taken to this point. The House of Representatives is currently on a summer break.