What Should Be Done About Militarization and the “1033 Program”

Policing Project
4 min readDec 20, 2021
Image courtesy of Unsplash

By Barry Friedman and Jessica Gillooly

Flashbang grenades fired at racial justice protests. Armored tanks used to serve search warrants. Images of police outfitted for a war zone are all too familiar — and alarming. Yet a study we recently completed of policing agency participation in the “1033 Program,” which allows domestic policing agencies to acquire surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense, indicates Congress missed an opportunity when it passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) without making any notable changes to the program. Both federal and state legislators need to do better.

There has been a lot written about the potential harms of militarization, but much less attention given to why police want the equipment and how they use it. To understand, we analyzed 1033 acquisition data and interviewed police officers and leaders from eight agencies.

Under the 1033 Program, departments receive two types of surplus equipment, controlled and uncontrolled. “Controlled” equipment, which includes things like weaponry and armored personnel carriers, makes up about 10 percent of all transferred equipment. The bulk of what policing agencies acquire is “uncontrolled” surplus equipment — such as blankets, office furniture, refrigerators, and power tools.

We heard policing agencies advance a number of benefits from using controlled equipment, including that the equipment helped save lives during natural disasters or live-shooter or hostage situations. They also made the point that 1033 saved their agencies money for equipment their agencies otherwise would have to purchase. Still, agencies were unable to quantify these benefits. They also largely discounted the costs of public perception about militarization.

Even accepting the value of police using certain militarized equipment, our study suggests public officials, especially those in Congress, should pay more attention to militarization generally, and to reform of the 1033 Program in particular. There are four takeaways.

First, most people are wrong in attributing police militarization primarily to 1033 Program. Agencies made clear that one way or another they will acquire what they feel is necessary. Police rely on a complex web of private police foundations and other federal programs, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Strategy Initiative (UASI), the Defense Department’s 1122 Program grant, and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. These other sources often are favored over the 1033 Program, because 1033 equipment typically is used and outdated. Public officials and legislators must investigate and regulate funding mechanisms beyond the 1033 Program.

Second, democratic accountability around agency acquisition of militarized equipment needs to be much stronger. There is going to be no end of the debate over militarization until the responsibility for it rests with democratically-elected officials and not the police. The 1033 Program now requires an annual sign off by local officials before their agency can acquire any equipment, but this is no substitute for those officials scrutinizing and approving the acquisition of specific controlled equipment. If an agency wants controlled equipment, it should have to get approval from officials who are accountable to local voters. Congress and local bodies should strengthen the requirements of democratic sign off before specific equipment is acquired.

Third, policing agencies should have a policy in place regarding how controlled equipment is going to be used before equipment is acquired. Then, the policy should be adhered to. Most of the agencies we spoke with did not have policies stating the conditions under which 1033 equipment could or could not be used. An agency could obtain certain vehicles to use in case of natural disaster, but then roll it out for other types of events, such as protests.

Finally, Congress should give serious consideration to allowing other public agencies — beyond the police — obtain uncontrolled surplus military equipment. Many government agencies at present are facing serious resource constraints, and could benefit from the same sorts of desks, computers, kitchens, gym furnishings, or power tools the police are receiving. Indeed, the police often store some of this equipment — such as blankets — for emergencies. Other agencies might put the equipment to immediate use. Legislators should allow other public agencies beyond the police to acquire this uncontrolled equipment.

In the latest NDAA, Congress’s only change to the 1033 Program calls for more equitable distribution of equipment between large and small cities. Equitable distribution of equipment is not the most important issue here. What’s needed are rules and guardrails in place around the acquisition of militarized equipment, that allows the public voice to be heard and respected.

Barry Friedman is a law professor and Faculty Director of the Policing Project at New York University School of Law. He is the author of Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission.

Jessica Gillooly is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Suffolk University.



Policing Project

The Policing Project at NYU School of Law partners with communities and police to promote public safety through transparency, equity, and democratic engagement.