Among the many bills awaiting the signature—or veto—of Governor Jerry Brown is AB 3131, a measure that would ensure transparency about police militarization across the State of California. While we are disappointed in recent legislative amendments that weakened the original bill, we remain eager to see it signed into law. Today’s pervasive secrecy about police acquisition of military hardware—including high tech spying devices—impedes a long overdue public debate. 

EFF is troubled by the transfer of powerful spying technologies from our armed forces to state and local police. 

Police militarization has prompted concerns from across the political spectrum. For instance, progressives and racial justice advocates decry the frequency with which police use force, which all too often has lethal consequences partly driven by the use of military training and equipment. Meanwhile, libertarians and many conservatives with fiscal concerns bemoan spending public tax dollars on expensive weapons (often built by powerful corporations).

EFF is especially troubled by the transfer of powerful spying technologies, built for combat on foreign battlefields, from our armed forces to our state and local police. This phenomenon has proceeded aggressively across California, where law enforcement agencies have gained access to thermal imaging equipment, drones, and sonic crowd control devices worth over $130 million. Currently, police acquisition and use of this equipment is not subject to civilian oversight by any legislative body.

In the face of these concerns, A.B. 3131 would at last ensure transparency in law enforcement acquisition of military equipment. And it would apply to law enforcement agencies generally, including sheriff’s departments that sometimes escape civilian oversight by county boards.

We ultimately hope to establish robust opportunities for community control over whether police agencies may acquire high tech military spying equipment, and not just (as in this bill) transparency when police agencies decide to acquire such equipment. Such community control would have been provided by earlier versions of A.B. 3131. We are disappointed that recent amendments removed this provision, watering down the influence of communities over law enforcement militarization. However, the transparency provided by A.B. 3131—into both the acquisition of military equipment and policies governing its use—pierces the wall of secrecy that has prevented public discussion for entirely too long in far too many places.

Concerns about the role of militarization in undermining our rights were articulated by none other than President Eisenhower, the last President who commanded a wartime army. It may have taken the state legislature over 55 years to respond to his historic speech, but—even though today’s response does not go far enough—late is better than never. 

We encourage Governor Brown to sign A.B. 3131 into law, so that Californians across the state can finally learn about how police are acquiring and using military equipment, including powerful spying technologies, in our communities.