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Obama Doesn’t Really Want to End Police Militarization

The president claims he wants to end "militarized" police culture, but refuses to end federal programs that give military weapons to local cops.

by CJ Ciaramella
Dec 2 2014, 10:09pm

A police sharpshooter in Ferguson, Mo. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Four months ago, when ​​protests first erupted in Ferguson, Mo.​, and images started to emerge of camo-clad police officers patrolling the streets in armored tanks, President Obama promised to review federal programs that funnel military-grade equipment to local police department. Now, the​ findings of that review are in, and for the most part, the report puts us right back where we started.

What comes out of the review, released by the White House on Monday, is a promise for increased transparency and tightened standards for transferring military gear to local law enforcement. But the report doesn't call for terminating the programs, or even curtailing them in any meaningful way.

In short, it looks a lot like Obama is trying to have it both ways on the issue of police militarization. The report's release came amid a day of White House meetings with police, civil rights activists, local leaders, and law enforcement aimed at projecting a strong response to the events in Ferguson. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Obama promised to "make sure we're not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement." take steps to address the "simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color."

"This is not a problem simply of Ferguson, Missouri," he said. "This is a problem that is national. It is a solvable problem, but it is one that, unfortunately, spikes after one event and then fades into the background until something else happens."

But while Obama promised to take steps to "make sure we're not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement," White House officials continued to defend programs that have sent billions of dollars in surplus military equipment, including weapons and tactical vehicles, to state and local police. In fact, administration officials found that the equipment transfers were actually useful as a counterterrorism strategy, despite the alarmingly heavy-handed use of the equipment by police in Ferguson and other cities.

Rather than repeal the bills that established the equipment transfer programs, the administration said Monday that it was focused on improving accountability. ""It is not clear that there is a consistency with regard to the way that these programs are implemented, structured and audited, and that's something that needs to be addressed," White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest said Monday.

To that end, Obama will issue executive orders directing federal agencies to improve the way that equipment is transferred and audited to local agencies, including requiring local governments to authorize any procurements by law enforcement, and requiring that police be trained to use the equipment. The White House will also propose a $263-million spending package to expand law enforcement training. About $75 million of that would provide matching funds for as many as 50,000 body cameras for police.

Still, the moves are unlikely to appease critics of the Pentagon's 1033 program, the source of most of the military-grade gear used by police in Ferguson. While administration officials have pointed out repeatedly that only about 4 percent of equipment transferred through the program is actually "controlled property" (i.e. weapons, tanks, and other military surplus items), the numbers are still jarring. According to the report released Monday, the federal government has provided 460,000 pieces of military equipment to local police, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles, and 616 aircraft. All told, state and law enforcement agencies have gotten $18 billion in funds and resources from the feds in the last five years alone. And of course, it doesn't help that one of the chairs of Obama's new police militarization task force is Philadelphia Police Commissioner, a former Washington, DC, police chief who oversaw the mass arrest of protesters during the 2002 IMF and World Bank meetings. 

Much of what the press and public has learned about the Pentagon's 1033 program has come through Freedom of Information Act requests, but in many cases police departments released incomplete data or stonewalled the requests entirely. A 2014 ACLU study found 62 percent of the SWAT raids surveyed were searches for drugs and disproportionately used against people of color. However, hundreds of police department's refused to turn over data for that study. Thirteen states refuse​d to turn over data to Muckrock on what equipment they received from the federal government. Massachusetts SWAT teams even claim​ed they were exempt from state public record laws.

The limited reforms proposed by the White House reflect a dwindling interest in Washington in curbing police militarization. While the images from Ferguson initially incensed both liberals and small-government conservatives, bipartisan momentum behind reforming police militarization ran out of steam, as so often happens on Capitol Hill. Republican Senators Rand Paul and Tom Coburn are working together to craft legislation to curb police militarization in the next session of Congress. But administration officials refused to say Monday whether Obama would support proposed legislation to limit the transfer of equipment to local law enforcement.

"Our assumption is Congress has an intent here to support local law enforcement with the use of this kind of equipment," an administration official told reporters, according to BuzzFeed. "Our focus is on what kind of protections are in place to make sure it's used properly and safely."

Still, some activists hope that the White House actions will at least restart the conversation about the heavy-handed tactics used by local law enforcement, particularly against minorities. 

"The president really wanted to make clear that problems with policing of communities of color are not isolated incidents," Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's  Washington Legislative office, said in an interview with VICE. "I felt more optimistic than I have in a long time that the Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and Trayvon Martin incidents are being connected by the federal government." 

"We think the guidance [Obama] has issued is a good start, but it needs to go farther," she added. "We would like him to consider a possible moratorium on the entire program. Or at least for police departments under investigation by the Justice Department. They should not still be getting rewarded with military equipment."