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Monday, May 18, 2015

Obama Stops Tanks, Bayonets, Grenade Launchers to Local Cops

The decision is a big step against police militarization

Last summer, the nation watched in disbelief as the police department of a town of 21,000 people cracked down on protests using armored vehicles, assault rifles, and other equipment meant for war zones. The public got a good long look at police militarization in Ferguson, and we got our first real debate about the federal program that sends billions of dollars of surplus military equipment to local police.

Today, the White House announced that “grenade launchers, tracked armored vehicles, armed aircraft, bayonets, and guns and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher”, as well as camouflage military uniforms,  would no longer be available to police through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. While states like Montana have taken steps to rein in what police can get their hands on, this is the first significant national reform to stop the flow of war gear to police.

The administration’s report on police militarization concluded:

There is a “substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items,” which “could significantly undermine community trust” . . .

Other federally supplied equipment, such as wheeled armored vehicles, drones, helicopters, firearms and riot gear, will come with new strings attached for local police to ensure officers are trained in their use and in “community policing, constitutional policing and community input.”

Police must provide a “clear and persuasive explanation” for the need of the equipment and get approval from their local government.

In addition, police departments must agree to federal oversight and auditing of the equipment’s use. Over 150 departments have been suspended from the program for losing track of weapons given to them by the Pentagon.

The new rules stipulate that police must collect and report data whenever military equipment is used in a “significant incident.”

In addition to blocking the distribution of equipment like grenade launchers from the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, NPR reports that the new rules also ban police from using federal funding or grants to purchase prohibited weapons and vehicles. This is a huge decision in seriously reversing militarization. As Radley Balko points out, most military-style gear going to police now is not coming from the Pentagon but is being purchased with Homeland Security grants.

The Associated Press also reports, “The federal government also is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment already distributed.”

President Obama plans to give a speech outlining these and other reforms in Camden, NJ, later this afternoon.

The City of Camden abolished its corrupt and ineffective police force in 2012, replacing it with a county-run agency that eliminated the police union’s sweetheart contract and focused on closing cases, rebuilding trust with the community, and putting cops on the street (as well as some more troubling surveillance practices). But the bottom line is that the reforms worked: violent crime is way, way down since the new strategy was implemented.

Read the rest of the White House report here, as well as more coverage of  police militarization from yours truly in the Freeman.

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.