President Obama Rolls Back Some Police Militarization… Police Flip Out

from the really-now? dept

We’ve had a bunch of stories lately about the increase in militarized police and what a ridiculous and dangerous idea it is. As we’ve discussed in the past, much of this came from the Defense Department and its 1033 program, which takes decommissioned military equipment and gives it to police. This results in bizarre situations like the LA School District police having a bunch of grenade launchers. The program is somewhat infamous for its lack of rules, transparency and oversight.

So it was great to see President Obama this week issue an executive order that greatly scales back the program. You’ll be happy to know that no future LA School Districts will get grenade launchers (though, to be fair, after bad publicity, the school district did give the ones it had received back):

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.

[….]

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.

For police departments that already have the now “banned” items, they will have to be returned. You’ll notice that one of the biggest symbols that people point to of overly-militarized police — the MRAP — is not included in the banned list. There are some other limitations here as well. And a big one, as the guy who literally wrote the book on militarized police, Radley Balko, notes: the 1033 program is no longer the biggest supplier of such things to police:

Since 2003, for example, the Department of Homeland Security has been giving grants to police departments around the country to purchase new military-grade gear. That program now dwarfs the 1033 Program. It has also given rise to a cottage industry of companies that build gear in exchange for those DHS checks. Those companies now have a significant lobbying presence in Washington. I suspect that presence will now only grow stronger. So if the Obama administration really wants to roll back police militarization, this program needs reform, too.

Still, as Balko also notes, there is still a lot of importance in the symbolism of the move made this week:

From what has been reported, this new initiative addresses these concerns as well and seems to indicate that the Obama administration understands and appreciates that the symbolic component of police militarization is just as important as the practical component. I?m uncomfortable with any military vehicles going to local police. Free societies tend to draw a clear line between cops and soldiers. Blurring that line indicates a failure to appreciate its importance. But this initiative is moving toward reestablishing that line, not moving it or further blurring it. Federal programs are pretty difficult to disband, so a blanket ban was probably never in the cards. Conditioning the acceptance of this gear on increased transparency, accountability and a move toward community policing seems like a good compromise. We?ll either get less use of this military-issued equipment, or we?ll get more and better information about how it?s used. Either outcome is progress.

Balko gives some additional (fantastic) background on why President Obama made the announcement in Camden, New Jersey — a city that had serious problems between the local police and the community, and basically figured out a way to restart from scratch (closing down the local police force and letting the county take over) while creating a much stronger community tie between police and the community, rather than the all-too-common adversarial relationship that has grown up in many places (which is often made worse by the militarization).

Not surprisingly… there are already loud complaints from police representatives, who complain (misleadingly) about how this move puts them all in danger:

The nation?s largest police union is fighting back against a White House plan to restrict local police forces? ability to acquire military-style gear, accusing President Barack Obama?s task force of politicizing officers? safety.

Other police are hilariously arguing that this move will actually increase military presence, because police without this equipment will no longer be able to contain crowds, and thus the National Guard will have to be called in more frequently. Of course, all of that seems to assume that violent protests are the norm, rather than a semi-rare occurrence — and, it also ignores how militarized police often seem to exacerbate such situations, rather than calm them down.

This move doesn’t end the militarization of police, but it does take a step in the right direction. As Balko notes, if we believe in a free society, we shouldn’t have militarized police. This move is an important step up.

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Comments on “President Obama Rolls Back Some Police Militarization… Police Flip Out”

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37 Comments
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

You’ll notice that one of the biggest symbols that people point to of overly-militarized police — the MRAP — is not included in the banned list.
Wait what?

Obama also is placing a longer list of military equipment under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees

Wheeled vehicles that are armored against IEDs and ambushes are not “wheeled armored vehicles”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…and we might see the National Guard more often if the police can’t carry the same arsenal.

Well I for one would rather see that equipment in the hands of the National Guard who are fully trained in how to use it, and only called out when warranted. The uneasiness doesn’t come from seeing the military, it comes from seeing a policing force acting like the military.

Anonymous Coward says:

Speaking of which

Of course, all of that seems to assume that violent protests are the norm, rather than a semi-rare occurrence — and, it also ignores how militarized police often seem to exacerbate such situations, rather than calm them down.

That’s exactly how things went down in Baltimore. Police issued a nebulous, unsupported “threat report” that local gangs were uniting in order to target police. They provided no basis, no evidence, nothing to back up this report — and they issued it during Freddie Gray’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, they ordered Frederick Douglass High School to dismiss early, closed the nearby transportation hub (at Mondawmin Mall) that most of those students use to get to/from school, and confronted these children with a massive number of heavily armed police in riot gear — ordering them to “go home” when they’d just cut off their means of doing so.

There was no “situation” to escalate until police created one. There was no escalation until police provoked it.

Worth noting is that — as of today — there is absolutely no evidence in the public record showing who started the fires that night. (And I doubt that anyone directly involved in street action broke off and drove several miles across town to torch an under-construction nursing home.) Of course the story being peddled on CNN and Fox and elsewhere is that rioters did so…and perhaps they did. But there is no proof. Even though anyone and everyone carries a cellphone with a camera, even though there are surveillance cameras (city-operated and otherwise) everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be a single frame showing who started the fires.

Also worth noting is that many days of protests proceeded and followed that night. Despite further police provocation, including targeting legal observers for arrest, targeting journalists/media/photographers for arrest, pepper-spraying/macing unarmed citizens standing still, etc. those protests have remained peaceful to this day.

That One Guy (profile) says:

How will they ever survive?

If the police aren’t allowed to use rounds designed to punch through armored vehicles, armored vehicles of their own to serve warrants or just to drive around and feel like big boys, and weapon mounted knives to deal with pesky people who get too close, how in the world are they supposed to survive their day to day interactions with the public?!

Police have had all of those tools since they were first formed in the US, and the presence of such gear is the only reason they were able to do their jobs without suffering massive casualties on a weekly basis, so clearly taking away their ability to field such items without providing reasoning as to why they need them will lead to a bloodbath of unprecedented proportions!

Anonymous Coward says:

That's a red flag

>objects to a measure that would require police departments to get permission from city governments to acquire certain equipment

What’s so bad about police being governed by the communities they represent? The fact that they could get whatever they wanted from the Federal government before is the real cause for alarm here.

Jack says:

Re: Re:

Law enforcement doesn’t understand sarcasm and already beat you to trying out getting gear from the navy: Wyoming tried to get an aircraft carrier. Then they remembered they don’t have a bathtub big enough to put it in. Plus, an aging rusted out aircraft carrier would just take away from the scenery of Yellowstone Lake.

http://trib.com/news/updates/wanted-aircraft-carrier-in-wyoming/article_5523ed5c-4ff4-5274-b334-3e7a64598ea5.html

Anonymous Coward says:

police without this equipment will no longer be able to contain crowds, and thus the National Guard will have to be called in more frequently

Is this really a bad thing though? I would imagine it takes a lot more hoops to jump through to get the national guard to come out, and they’ll have a different set of oversight and rules than the local yokels. It would certainly prevent unnecessary escalation of force, but the option would be there when warranted.

Besides, it seems the national guard has to keep getting called in to clean up after some of these police forces with their big officer safety toys.

You are being watched (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The NG should really only be used for natural disaster recovery and in case of homeland invasion (and the occasional massive riot brought on by sports), not used to indiscriminately mow down people like the police want to but don’t have a technically legal law to abuse yet. Creative interpretation of the law does not count.

jimm says:

some read but do they understand?

The police really shut down the local services, the police shut down the schools? Really? Not the school board? Not the transportation director? Police may have advised, but do they control? If they control, why? Otherwise a lack of control by (who)? All that rioting because some crook/bully died? He wasn’t the angel protraied. But you scare the local patrolman enough times, he will react. Probably wrongly, like that one.

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