President Barack Obama ended long-running federal transfers of some combat-style gear to local law enforcement on Monday in an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities, saying equipment made for the battlefield should not be a tool of American criminal justice.
Grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher will no longer be provided to state and local police agencies by the federal government under Obama’s order.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said, nine months after an outcry over the use of riot gear and armored vehicles by police confronting protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
“It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message,” he said.
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Obama made his announcement in Camden, New Jersey, where he praised efforts by the police department to improve their relationship with a poor community struggling with violence.
With police under increased scrutiny over highly publicized deaths of black suspects nationwide, Obama also unveiled the final report of a task force he created to help build confidence between police and minority communities. And he issued a broader appeal for Americans to address racial disparities and the needs of poor communities before they erupt into disorder.
He also reiterated his call for overhauling sentencing practices for nonviolent drug crimes.
“We can’t ask the police to be the ones to solve the problem when there are no able-bodied men in the community or kids are growing up without intact households,” he said.
In Camden, Obama visited the police Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center and watched live video displays of city neighborhoods being monitored by officers. He also stopped by a community center where he met with young people and local police officers.
Ahead of his Camden remarks, Obama stopped briefly in nearby Philadelphia to praise its police and fire officials for their quick response to last week’s deadly Amtrak wreck.
In addition to the prohibitions in his order, Obama also is placing a longer list of military equipment 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 such equipment, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on its use.
Programs that transfer surplus military-style equipment from the Pentagon and other federal agencies have been around for decades, but Congress increased spending to help departments acquire the gear in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The issue of police militarization rose to prominence last year after a white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking protests. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama said in August.
The review, published in December, showed five federal agencies spent $18 billion on programs that provided equipment, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft. At the time, the White House defended the programs as proving to be useful in many cases, such as the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. Instead of repealing the programs, Obama issued an executive order that required federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to recommend changes that make sure they are accountable and transparent.
The report from the 21st Century Policing task force has a long list of recommendations to improve trust in police, including encouraging more transparency about interactions with the public. The White House said 21 police agencies nationwide, including Camden and Philadelphia, have agreed to start putting out never-before released data on citizen interactions, like use of force, stops, citations and officer-involved shootings. The administration also is launching an online toolkit to encourage the use of body cameras to record police interactions. And the Justice Department is giving $163 million in grants to incentivize police departments to adopt the report’s recommendations.
Sacramento, California, Mayor Kevin Johnson, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, praised Obama’s actions, saying they “show how serious he is about doing this now and doing this right.”