Bold Step or Quick Fix? Obama to Restrict Military Hardware for Local Cops

Announcement of new initiative follows nine months of community uprisings over racism, police violence, and the militarization of local law enforcement

By Jon Queally, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published May 18, 2015

Many of the specific proposals Obama will talk about on Monday are taken from a White House-commissioned panel, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a lengthy report in December on a variety law enforcement and community strategies designed to decrease the incidents of police brutality while making communities safer. (Photo: White House)

In response to long-held—and increasingly elevated—criticisms of the way predominantly poor neighborhoods and communities of color have been treated by law enforcement, President Barack Obama on Monday will announce a series of federal initiatives that will include new restrictions on the kinds of military-grade equipment made available to local police departments.

Though welcomed by many as a bold step, others question whether the new rules amount to little more than a “quick fix” that does too little to address the trend towards increasingly militarized police forces across the country.

Following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last summer and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that has taken root in cities across the country over the last nine months, Obama will present the new rules in a speech from Camden, New Jersey—one of the nation’s poorest cities. The speech will highlight what the White House is calling a successful model of community police work that has tried to bridge the gap between heavy-handed or brutal police tactics and a community beset by pervasive unemployment, high crime rates, and violence.

According to the Associated Press:

Obama plans to visit Camden police headquarters before heading to a community center to meet with youth and law enforcement and give a speech. “I’ll highlight steps all cities can take to maintain trust between the brave law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line, and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect,” Obama said in his weekly address out Saturday.

In previewing the president’s trip, the White House said that effective immediately, the federal government will no longer fund or provide armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms. The federal government also is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment already distributed.

In addition, a longer list of equipment the federal government provides will come under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets and shields. Starting in October, police will have to get approval from their city council, mayor or some other local governing body to obtain it, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on the use of the equipment.

In March, the state of New Jersey became the first in the nation to require local approval for law enforcement acquisition of military-grade equipment, which the ACLU championed as “a major victory for government transparency, democratic accountability, and the effort to demilitarize local police forces.”

Though Obama’s initiative to reduce the amount of military hardware made available to local police departments might be considered a step in the right direction, critics like Professor Peter Kraska, chair of Graduate Studies and Research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and a leading expert on the militarization of police, warn that the White House reforms do not go nearly far enough.

“It’s positive to see the White House addressing the issue of police militarization as it relates to Ferguson but the approach that they’re they’re taking is a minor step in addressing the overall militarization trend,” said Kraska, who has met with administration officials and testified before Congress on the issue.

“From my meeting at the White House, frankly, they — like most political players — were interested in a quick fix,” he said. “They want to hear that by somehow tweaking the 1033 program (which transfers equipment from the Pentagon to local law enforcement) that they can have an impact. That program is important symbolically, but there’s an entire for-profit police militarization industry that wouldn’t be affected.”

Kraska cited the Department of Homeland Security grant program, which provides far more than the same program operated by the Pentagon. In addition, he said, local municipalities are also purchasing heavy military-type equipment from civil asset forfeiture funds. “At the end of the day, what really needs to be addressed is a 25-year-long process of militarizing the culture of military police,” argues Kraska. “There needs to be a focus on the demand side rather than the supply. As long as there is a high level of demand for heavy military equipment by local law enforcement, you’re not really fixing the problem.”

Many of the specific proposals Obama will talk about on Monday are taken from a White House-commissioned panel, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a lengthy report in December on a variety law enforcement and community strategies designed to decrease the incidents of police brutality while making communities safer. According to a fact sheet released by the administration, the Task Force report offers “tools all cities can utilize to build and maintain the all-important trust between the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day, and the communities they have sworn to serve and protect.” According to the fact sheet, those tools include:

  • A Blueprint for Improved Community Policing: The final Task Force Report provides a blue print for cities and towns to utilize as they develop policing strategies that work best for building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve while enhancing public safety.
  • The White House Police Data Initiative:  Leading jurisdictions have joined technologists, community organizations and police associations to commit to use data and technology in ways that build community trust and reduce unnecessary uses of force.
  • Community Policing Grants: The Department of Justice (DOJ) will begin taking applications for grants designed to advance the practice of community policing in law enforcement agencies through hiring, training and technical assistance, the development of innovative community policing strategies, applied research, guidebooks, and best practices that are national in scope.
  • A Body-Worn Camera Tool Kit:  Earlier this month, the DOJ announced a new pilot grant program that will help local law enforcement agencies develop, implement, and evaluate body-worn camera programs, and today, DOJ is releasing an online clearinghouse of resources designed to help law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve plan and implement body-worn camera (BWC) programs.
  • Partnerships with National Law Enforcement Focused Organizations to Implement Recommendations: With support from the Department of Justice, nine law enforcement-focused organizations will develop national-level, industry-wide projects for several of the pillars outlined in the Task Force Report.
  • Equipment Working Group Final Report: A federal interagency working group—led by the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security – has now completed an extensive review of federal programs that support the acquisition of equipment by state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.  On the basis of that review, the working group developed a series of concrete steps to enhance accountability, increase transparency, and better serve the needs of law enforcement and local communities.

In a conference call with reporters, Ronald L. Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice said, “We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing,” referring to the last nine months of debate about the intersection of race, police brutality, and community anger. Praising the new White House initiative, Davis continued: “We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, but it must also include a presence for justice.”

Speaking with Reuters on Monday, Rashad Robinson, executive director of advocacy group Color of Change, said that the strong community reactions to a series of high-profile killings of unarmed black men and women have made the issues of racism and police violence impossible to ignore. “Race issues have been more present over the past year for this country,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen, since Ferguson, issues that have been bubbling up in communities becoming much more present.”

Offering a grassroots and community perspective on one key piece of police reform on Friday, a broad coalition of civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations released a shared set of guiding principles surrounding the use of police body cameras. The statement by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, offered general support for the increased deployment of such cameras among law enforcement officers, but said the technology was no panacea for the problems that plague many departments.

“Whether they’re worn by an officer or mounted on police equipment, cameras could help provide transparency into law enforcement practices, by providing first-hand evidence of public interactions,” the coalition stated. “But police-operated cameras are no substitute for broader reforms of policing practices. In fact, cameras could be used to intensify disproportionate surveillance and enforcement in heavily policed communities of color. Without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.”

According to Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the coalition’s guidelines, if enacted, would “help ensure that cameras are tools for accountability—not instruments of injustice. Without fair and transparent standards for the use of body worn cameras, police departments risk exacerbating the problems they are seeking to fix.”

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