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Trump Lifts Ban on Military Gear Going to Local Police

by Countable | 8.28.17

What’s the story?

As first reported by USA Today, on Monday President Donald Trump is planning to sign an executive order rescinding a 2015 ban on certain types of military surplus being passed along to local police departments. The ban was instituted through executive order by then-President Barack Obama following investigations into the police response to 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, black man.

The impending order was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions during an address in front of the annual gathering of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a group that has lobbied strongly against the Obama-era ban.

Why does it matter?

The 2015 ban enacted by President Obama did not restrict local law enforcement from accessing all military surplus, but it did ban access to certain types of equipment, and severely restricted access to others. Under the list of banned equipment was tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, and large-caliber weapons and ammunition.

Under the list of "controlled equipment" was aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command-and-control units, battering rams and riot gear. In order to access this equipment, local police departments had to meet national policing standards, track their use and receive approval from the federal government before selling or transferring any of the equipment.

The movement of military surplus to local police departments under the ‘1033’ program began in 1990 as part of the ‘War on Drugs’. It was expanded in 1997 beyond addressing drug crime. When police met protestors in Ferguson with military tactical gear, assault rifles and tanks, the impact of the increased militarization of local police forces set off alarm bell among civil rights advocates and the public.

Since 1990, approximately $5.4 billion worth of military surplus has been transferred, at a fraction of that cost, to local police departments.

A multi-agency federal working group recommended the tiered ban. When instituting the recommendation, USA Today reports President Obama stated:

"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they're an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them…[military equipment] can alienate and intimidate local residents and may send the wrong message."

When announcing the lifting of the ban Monday the Washington Post reports AG Sessions characterized concerns about police militarization and community perception as "superficial concerns":

"We will not put superficial concerns above public safety…The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal."

FOP President Chuck Canterbury applauded the decision to the Post:

"Protective equipment is essential to officer and public safety in a wide variety of life and death situations. This decisive action by President Trump fulfills a promise he made to the FOP during the campaign, and police officers nationwide are grateful to him. … The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too ‘militarized’ than they were about our safety."

Civil rights groups have decried the upcoming order from President Trump. Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called the move "exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible." CNN reports Vanita Gupta, former head of DOJ's civil rights division under Obama and current head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, stated that the move would encourage the wrong attitude in local police:

"These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone."

Supporters of the administration’s action point to the successful use of military surplus gear in the police response to mass shootings in San Bernadino, CA and Orlando, FL. The administration points to papers published by the American Economic Association that argue distributing military weapons and equipment to civilian law enforcement had "generally positive effects" and “reduced street-level crime.”

What do you think?

How do we balance officer safety and citizen safety? Does placing military hardware in the hands of local law enforcement harm community/police relationships? How does this action, taken so soon after the violence in Charlottesville, help or hinder community efforts to combat white supremacy? Are the two even related?

Tell us in the comments and then use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Police Sharpshooter at Ferguson Protests via Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

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