In a Tuesday speech addressing the recent civic unrest that has roiled America since the killing of George Floyd, former Vice President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a series of reforms aimed at improving “oversight and accountability” in the nation’s police departments.
Among those ideas is a proposal “to stop transferring weapons of war to police forces,” Biden said in Philadelphia.
Still, Biden is an awkward avatar for police reform. Back in 1997, the then-senator from Delaware voted in favor of the bill that expanded the Pentagon’s role in handing off surplus gear to local cops. It was that year’s National Defense Authorization Act that created the 1033 program, a vastly expanded version of previous military surplus programs that entitled “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission.”
Like so many other bad ideas from the 1990s, this one was wrapped up in the war on drugs. The 1033 program gave preference to departments that sought military gear for counter-drug operations. That makes the program a double-whammy of bad ideas: It gave local police an incentive to more vigorously prosecute drug users in order to score free toys from the Pentagon.
The result was exactly what you’d predict. It’s no longer unusual for local police departments to own mine-resistant vehicles, grenade launchers, and even tanks. These weapons of war have never been appropriate for police work, but billions of dollars’ worth of them have been distributed to departments around the country—in part because Biden voted for the original legislation.
In his speech on Tuesday, Biden did not grapple with that unfortunate bit of his legislative history. Hopefully he will be asked about it soon.
In the meantime, some members of Congress are already getting to work. The New York Times reported Tuesday that a bipartisan group of lawmakers have launched an effort to shut down the Pentagon’s transfer of military gear to cops. “It is clear that many police departments are being outfitted as if they are going to war, and it is not working in terms of maintaining the peace,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii)—who previously worked with Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) on an ill-fated attempt to end the practice—told the Times. “Just because the Department of Defense has excess weaponry doesn’t mean it will be put to good use.”
As for Biden, his change of heart regarding military gear for cops fits nicely alongside the rest of his biography. As one of the most powerful members of the Senate in the 1980s and 1990s, Biden played a major role in passing several tough-on-crime policies that helped amplify the horrors of the drug war and filled America’s prisons to the brim. He’s had to reckon with that during his campaign for president.
Biden is, as Reason Editor at Large Matt Welch has observed, something of a rusty weather vane for the Democratic Party consensus. When the party was gung-ho about locking up criminal and throwing away the key, Biden was there to write the bills that President Bill Clinton signed. Now that the Democratic constituency is finally paying attention to criminal justice reform and police accountability, he’s trying to undo some of the very measures he once drafted.
But it’s still better to look like a hypocrite than to continue being wrong. Biden’s evolution from a drug warrior who approved of arming cops with military gear to a critic of the drug war who wants to end abusive policing is perhaps a silver lining to this week’s awfulness. He’s a presidential candidate who is the embodiment of the Overton window, and it appears he has been shifted.