Bill would add local oversight when police get military gear

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (State House News Service) – A year ago, Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Carlos Gonzalez said, he might not have given much thought to the details of a bill to impose citizen oversight of the acquisition of military-grade equipment by local law enforcement.

But that was before the Springfield Democrat watched the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “I saw on Jan. 6 our democracy get trampled and individuals attempting to divide this country even further by taking over the democratic values that we have fought for and many individuals have lost their lives to preserve,” Gonzalez said Monday while leading a committee hearing. “It’s something that concerns me more today than it did a year ago,” said Gonzalez, who was newly named to co-chair the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee at the start of the session this year.

Gonzalez was responding to testimony from Rep. Mary Keefe, one of two sponsors along with Sen. Michael Barrett of legislation (S 1539/H 2479) that would require a local legislative body, such as Town Meeting or city council, to approve the acquisition of military-style firearms and equipment. Keefe, of Worcester, and Barrett, of Lexington, said that since 1997 Massachusetts law enforcement agencies have obtained $12.9 million worth of military equipment, including automatic weapons, grenade launchers and armored vehicles for crowd control.

“I think we’re all really aware of the concerning trend toward militarization of our police forces,” Keefe said. Keefe said much of the equipment is made available to law enforcement agencies through the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program, and can range from assault rifles to respirators.

Some of it can be useful for responding to natural disasters, Keefe said. While the bills would not prohibit participation in the program, they would require citizen participation in the process of deciding whether to acquire such equipment. “So no defunding here, but, yes, some oversight,” Barrett said.

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