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One reason cops are using military vehicles on American streets? The feds make them do it.

Police using a military-style vehicle in Ferguson, MO.
Police using a military-style vehicle in Ferguson, MO.
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Monday, the White House put out its review of the eight federal programs that help "support" local law enforcement — including several that send military equipment into the hands of local police.

But the review failed to endorse one of the easiest ways that President Obama could rein in police militarization: ditching a requirement, built into one of the biggest militarization programs, that police receiving equipment actually use it.

How the 1033 program requires cops to use military equipment

Under the "1033" program run by the Department of Defense, extra military equipment is given out to local police departments. That includes "controlled property": things that the federal government regulates as war equipment, like weapons, night-vision goggles, military helicopters, or mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPs).

The White House report says that only 4 percent of the equipment actually given out through 1033 is "controlled property," and the rest are things like office supplies. (The ACLU thinks this statistic is extremely misleading, because "it gave one blanket the same weight it gave one MRAP.") That still comes out to 78,000 pieces of controlled property in the hands of local cops thanks to the 1033 program.

SWAT team manhunt

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LAPD officers on a manhunt. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Cops are supposed to use that equipment for the War on Drugs, or counter-terrorism. And when police departments ask for military equipment, they often reassure the local government that they're trying to prepare for worst-case scenarios that "may not actually happen."

But when local police get something from the DOD under the 1033 program, they sign an agreement with the DOD regulating how the equipment's going to be used. And that agreement requires that local police use any military equipment they get within a year of getting it.

As my colleague Amanda Taub has pointed out, that requirement makes it impossible for local police to use restraint: "If police departments want to keep their new gear, they can't wait for a rare emergency like an active shooter or hostage situation in order to use it."

The White House isn't acknowledging its role in the problem

White House officials said that the reason they didn't recommend that 1033 and other programs simply get eliminated was to defer to Congress: Congress had put these programs in place, and Congress needed to decide whether it wanted to remove them. (There are a couple of bills that would do just that, but the White House hasn't endorsed them yet.)

But Congress didn't write the text of the agreements that the DOD enters into with local cops. That's a matter of DOD regulation — which means it's something the White House could have recommended be changed.

Most of the White House review focused on how local police departments get equipment, not how they use it. And it uncovered some serious problems on that side: for example, if the Department of Defense busts a police department for misusing equipment or violating the Constitution, it's still eligible to get military gear from the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security.

But ultimately, the federal government has less power over whether local cops can have military gear — Congress has said that they're supposed to, after all — than it does over how they use it. And it's often how they use it that's the problem: as the report points out, communities that feel targeted by local police don't much appreciate the "show of force" of bringing mine-resistant vehicles through neighborhood streets.

The review thinks training is the answer: "civil rights and civil liberties training" to get police to respect communities more, and "proper training to understand when and how controlled equipment is most appropriately deployed." But it doesn't matter if cops know when they don't need to use military equipment, if they're being required to use it anyway.