The new administration can do two things immediately that would help stop some of the more nefarious ways that police departments get surveillance technology. It should further roll back the infamous 1033 program of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows local police to inherit military gear. And it should bar the use of funds seized by civil asset forfeiture to fund these technologies.
Police surveillance tech is a multi-billion dollar industry. Police departments find as many avenues to fund it as they can. This technology is not just deployed against suspects after acquiring a warrant—often police use it for dragnet surveillance of cars and people. Examples include automated license plate readers (ALPRs) that track cars as they move about the city (including to or from places of worship and doctors’ or attorneys’ offices), and drones or CCTV camera networks that police use to monitor protests. Departments have even bought police robots programmed to identify supposedly “suspicious” people, which is an invitation to further racial profiling.
Beyond municipal budgets, there are numerous ways that police receive the funding that allows them to purchase drones and license plate readers, and build surveillance command centers known as real-time crime centers. Federal grants, wealthy individual benefactors, private foundations, and kickbacks from surveillance companies all contribute to police departments’ massive build-up of surveillance tech. Then police use it to track, listen to, and identify people going about their business.
Two of these methods can immediately be addressed by the Biden administration.
The 1033 Program
The infamous 1033 program provides police with excess military hardware like armored vehicles and weapons. Created in the 1990s, it has been the subject of a political tug-of-war in recent years. The Obama administration restricted the type of equipment that could be given to police departments, after the 2015 Black-led protests against police violence in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The Trump administration reversed course and ramped up the program shortly after taking office.
In January 2021, the military spending bill (which passed despite former-President Trump’s veto) reinstated some necessary guardrails. Congress banned grenades, bayonets, weaponized combat vehicles, and weaponized drones from passing hands from the military to local police departments.
We need further rules to prevent other equipment like surveillance drones from reaching our streets.
After phasing out the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which will help demilitarize local police, we hope the new Biden administration will re-think Department of Homeland Security grants to state and local police which fund surveillance technology, such as fusion centers, across the country. In addition to contributing to the militaristic and antagonistic posture of police agencies, fusion centers have recently been discovered (yet again) to be trafficking in dubious intelligence based on rumors, speculation, and disinformation.
Equitable Sharing and Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture is a process that allows law enforcement to seize money and property from individuals suspected of being involved in a crime before they have been convicted, and sometimes before they’ve even been charged. When a local law enforcement agency partners with a federal agency it can apply for a share of the resources seized through a process called “equitable sharing.” Local law enforcement often spends these funds on surveillance technology, such as ALPRs, body-worn cameras, and child monitoring software.
This shared money is commonly passed from the federal agency to the local law enforcement. For example, between July 2012 and June 2015, the city of San Jose, California, received $569,461 from the equitable sharing program. Likewise, in 2013, part of $95,000 in confiscated funds went to buy ALPRs for the city of Miami, Florida. In fact, ALPRs are a common purchase with these funds.
Because the person whose property is being confiscated has not been found guilty of a crime, banning civil asset forfeiture has had bipartisan support in the past. At least three states, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nebraska, have banned the practice, and there have been a number of federal bills to do the same.
Under President Obama, civil asset forfeiture skyrocketed. In 2015, he issued an executive order to create some guardrails for the program. Unfortunately, the Trump administration overturned them in 2017.
Now, President Biden has the chance to use his executive power to shut off this dangerous forfeiture-to-surveillance pipeline. This kind of supposedly “free federal money” incentivizes local police departments to buy invasive surveillance technology they don’t actually need, and often it is generated by stealing cash from innocent people.