In October 2013, our organization filed an open records request with the state of Utah’s Division of Administrative Services to determine what type of military gear was being requested and received by police agencies around Utah. Our request was denied, with the government essentially arguing that disclosure of this information would jeopardize the lives of the officers using the equipment if the citizens who employ them knew what it was.
We appealed and were able to obtain de-identified information—the list of assets in aggregate, without knowing which agencies possessed what. At the same time, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle requested and received the information directly from the federal government. Throughout 2014, public interest in and opposition to this flow of military weaponry and goods created enough political pressure that culminated in the responsible agency ultimately providing the raw data regarding all items transferred.
Today, the White House announced a revision to the policy—no longer will local law enforcement agencies be given grenade launchers, tracked armored vehicles, armed aircraft, bayonets, and guns and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher. Other supplies, including wheeled armored vehicles, drones, helicopters, firearms and riot gear, will still be allowed but will have restrictions placed on their use. Police agencies desiring these forms of equipment will be required to provide a “clear and persuasive explanation” for their need, and will have to get approval from their local government.
This latter point is in line with concerns held by Libertas Institute; communities have been almost entirely unaware of the military equipment being received and used by the officers they employ. At a minimum, transparency is essential in order to maintain public trust and provide oversight.
In last year’s Fourth Amendment Forum we co-sponsored, this topic was debated quite heavily, primarily between the Utah County sheriff who had just acquired an armored vehicle, and the ACLU national attorney who authored a report analyzing the degree to which such equipment had trickled down to law enforcement agencies nationwide.
An internal policy by the executive branch of the federal government only goes so far—congressional reform is needed to stop the flow of this equipment. Further, greater awareness is needed by the public of why officers want this gear, and how they intend to use it. This year’s Fourth Amendment Forum—the details of which will be announced next month—will discuss this issue in more depth.