When protests against police brutality erupted across the country after the murder of George Floyd, then-candidate for president Joe Biden gave a speech condemning the violent tactics law enforcement used against protesters. America is about protecting the right to free speech, Biden said, “Not horses rising up on their hind legs to push back a peaceful protest. Not using the American military to move against the American people.” He went on to outline several police reform measures that the federal government ought to enact, one of which was to halt the transfer of “weapons of war” to police departments. “No more excuses,” he demanded. “No more delays.”
As president, Biden has, nonetheless, chosen to delay.
While Biden was expected to sign an executive order to limit the transfer of equipment from the military to local law enforcement agencies within the first week of his presidency, he has yet to actually do so. In fact, nearly 10 months into his presidency, Biden doesn’t appear to have any plans to curtail the continued militarization of American police as he promised on his campaign: Bipartisan police reform negotiations are dead, separate legislation to demilitarize police has stalled, and the president has ignored calls from members of his own party to take executive action on the issue.
The distribution of military equipment to federal, state, and local police departments happens through the 1033 Program, which is named after a section of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act. Since then, police agencies have acquired billions of dollars worth of military gear, including Humvees, grenade launchers, and less-lethal weapons. (Even private-college campus police have gotten their hands on weapons of war.) Departments have not shied away from using such extreme weaponry against the citizens they’re tasked with protecting: Equipment from the 1033 Program has been used in protest after protest and in SWAT raids, and it has been used to kill Americans.
What is being asked of Biden is nothing radical. It’s to return to an Obama-era policy, which makes his apparent opposition to signing an executive order to limit these weapons transfers all the more puzzling. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.) As president, Barack Obama limited the use of the 1033 Program through executive action, and though it did not completely shut down the program, it did prompt agencies to return some of their equipment to the military. But in 2017, Donald Trump rescinded Obama’s executive order, and the 1033 Program has since resumed.
It should come as no surprise that research shows more heavily militarized police departments tend to be more aggressive and violent when dealing with civilians. It’s not only that these weapons give more opportunities for police to use violent tools, but they can give officers the impression that the people they serve are enemy combatants, especially in situations like protests. In other words, the 1033 Program influences the psychology of American policing and it gives civilians more reasons to fear police.
Biden knows this. “Surplus military equipment for law enforcement? They don’t need that,” he told activist Ady Barkan during the campaign. “The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into the neighborhood; it is like the military invading, they don’t know anybody, they become the enemy. They’re supposed to be protecting these people.”
But despite having said this and having full authority to do something about it, the president has so far ditched his campaign promises and early administration plans and instead bowed to pressure from police unions, who have lobbied against ending the 1033 Program. And while Congressional action would be required to permanently end the weapons-transfer program, an executive order would effectively bring the program to a standstill. Biden is failing to do the bare minimum of reinstating the Obama policy that Trump rescinded. Nothing stands in the president’s way of signing an executive order to reverse course, so what is it, exactly, that’s holding him back from answering the calls of the millions of people who marched across the country last year? Whatever the answer, he should take his own advice: No more excuses. No more delays.
Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.