Would $263 Million for Body Cameras Fix the Country's Law Enforcement Problems?
By Christi Parsons
President Barack Obama is ordering up new rules for giving local police agencies access to surplus U.S. military equipment such as the armored vehicles, assault rifles and body armor that police in Ferguson, Mo., used in an unsuccessful attempt to quiet protests this summer.
Obama is also proposing a three-year, $263-million spending package to expand training and increase the use of body-worn cameras for monitoring police interactions with the public. The proposal includes $75 million that would provide matching funds for purchasing as many as 50,000 cameras. Such cameras might have provided more information in the deadly August shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white Ferguson police officer.
The president's directive comes along with the release of a new White House review that found the so-called "surplus" programs of the Department of Defense and other federal agencies to be a mishmash of rules and practices, with no clear sign that all police are properly trained and certified to use the military-grade equipment they receive.
The results of the review come a week after a grand jury in St. Louis County chose not to indict the Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The shooting inflamed local tensions and led to unrest that brought attention to the use of military-grade equipment by local law enforcement officials in their response. Protests around the country and in Ferguson began anew last week in the wake of the grand jury's decision.
With the report newly in hand, Obama is instructing his staff to come up with a list of military gear that has a legitimate civilian law enforcement purpose and thus can be sent to local police forces around the country, senior administration officials said Monday.
The new rules will also require that local officials review and authorize the acquisition of small arms and all other "controlled" equipment by their communities, and that police be specially trained in their civilian use.
The rules will come within the next four months in the form of an executive order governing the Pentagon and all other federal agencies that run so-called "surplus" programs that distribute military-style equipment to police around the country.
"What he's asking his agencies to do is add a very specific layer of accountability," said one senior administration official familiar with the program. "These layers of accountability aren't currently present in the program."
In the case of Ferguson, the use of military equipment served only to escalate the conflict between police and protesters angry about the shooting.
As community leaders demanded to know why the police turned out at peaceful protests with riot gear and equipment, Obama ordered a White House review of the rules that govern the distribution of that material. The new report identifies a "lack of consistency" in how the various federal programs are run and audited and raises questions about whether police know how to use the military-grade equipment, the senior administration official said.
Obama is discussing the report's findings, and his new directive, in a series of Monday meetings with his Cabinet, young civil rights leaders and community leaders from around the country.
At the top of the agenda is finding ways to build trust between police and communities, an aide to the president said.
Obama directed his staff to draft an order that requires non-police officials to review and authorize the transfer of such equipment as small arms and armored vehicles before it can come to their communities.
Police forces would have to take part in rigorous training as well as follow-up reports for serious incidents involving the federal equipment, under the order.
In addition, Obama is setting up a task force to come up with recommendations for fighting crime while still building public trust.
Charles H. Ramsey, the Philadelphia police commissioner, and Laurie Robinson, former assistant attorney general for justice programs, will co-chair the panel.