Trump Reverses Obama's Ban on Military Gear Going to Police

President Trump signed an executive order on Monday, marking the administration's latest departure from its predecessor's policing policies.
by | August 28, 2017
Police officers equipped with military supplies in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

At a time when allegations of and videos showing police brutality regularly appear in the news, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday that the Trump administration will reinstate a program that provides surplus military equipment to local police departments.

Speaking at the 63rd Fraternal Order of Police Conference in Nashville, Sessions said President Trump will issue an executive order that will "[rescind] restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies' ability to get equipment … including life-saving gear." It was signed later that day.

This marks the Trump administration's latest departure from Obama-era policing policies. In June, Sessions signed an order to reverse limits on civil asset forfeiture, a widely criticized practice in which police officers seize cash and property from citizens who have not been charged with crimes.

The Obama administration limited the military surplus program in 2015 after the high-profile shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer. When protests against the fatal shooting erupted in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., many inside and outside the community criticized what they saw as an outsized, heavily militarized police response.

Obama's executive order blocked the military from passing armored vehicles, large-caliber weapons, explosives, battering rams and other heavy-duty military hardware onto police.

"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like [the police] are an occupying force, as opposed to a force that is protecting them and serving them," Obama said when he announced the new restrictions in 2015. "It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."

Sessions, however, stressed in his speech that military surplus transfers, as they're called, are crucial for officer safety and the execution of police work.

"These are the types of helmets and gear that stopped a bullet and saved the life of an officer during the Orlando night club shooting," Sessions said. "This is the type of equipment officers needed when they pursued and ultimately killed terrorists in San Bernardino."

Some experts in the law enforcement community appear to concur with the attorney general.

"It's never been more clear, with all these events in Europe, Orlando and San Bernardino. Police have to be on high alert more than ever before," says Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. "Police are the first line of defense against terrorism."

But O'Donnell also disagrees with the Trump administration's posturing on law enforcement issues so far.

"Policing is starved for a rational conversation in this country. Not point-scoring, not trying to advance a political party," he says. "This [announcement today] forces people to take sides: You're either with police or you're against police. And that's an absurd formulation."

Rather than a highly publicized executive order, O'Donnell would have preferred carefully planned legislation that compromises between opposing sides of the debate.

"We need bipartisan, nuanced policymaking, and this is the exact opposite of that," he says.

For their part, community policing advocates agree with Obama's assessment.

"This [new policy] is signaling to law enforcement that they can police in a heavy-handed way, no questions asked," says Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "It's just going to further strain an already very tense relationship between law enforcement and communities."

It's not just the relationship between law enforcement and communities that's strained. Last month, police chiefs across the country quickly condemned Trump for remarks he made that encouraged police to be "rough" with people who have been arrested.

"When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You see them thrown in rough. I said, 'Please don't be too nice,'" Trump said, referring to police protecting convicts' heads with their hands.

The executive order will also get rid of the Obama administration's previous requirements that county governments sign off on use of military equipment by local police departments. States and counties concerned about the use of such equipment should institute their own requirements, Bennett says, as New Jersey and Montana have already done.

In a document obtained by The New York Times ahead of Monday's announcement, the Trump administration cited two academic articles arguing that use of military equipment keeps officers safe and does not increase the number of deaths involving police. But critics like Bennett take issue with the widespread use of military equipment.

A previous ACLU report points out that SWAT teams in militarized gear are often deployed for routine operations, like drug busts and search warrants. It highlights a specific case from Atlanta, Ga., in which a SWAT team severely injured a baby when agents threw a flashbang grenade into his crib. The agents were searching for someone suspected of making a $50 drug deal. The baby suffered severe burns and potential brain damage from the explosion.

"I don't think that's something most people in the community would call an appropriate [policing] reaction to a drug deal," says Bennett.

The military surplus transfer program began in the 1990s. Since then, more than $5 billion in surplus military gear has been transferred to local law enforcement agencies, according to The New York Times.