In another blow to Obama-era police reforms, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced the White House is planning to renew a program that allowed police departments to receive military surplus equipment like grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and bayonets.
“The executive order the President will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal,” Sessions said at a law enforcement convention hosted by the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, in Nashville. “We have your back,” he assured the attendees.
The order will reinstate a law signed in 1997 by former President Bill Clinton called the 1033 program, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military gear to local law enforcement agencies. That law came under heavy criticism in 2014 when images of heavily-armored vehicles and officers in military-grade gear confronting protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, made international headlines and forced the country to confront the increasing militarization of local police.
“We saw legislators left to right saying, what are we doing turning America into a police state?” said Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief. “Look at all this military equipment on the streets of a small city in Missouri.”
In 2015, President Obama signed an order curbing the 1033 program, sparking an immediate outcry from police groups who saw the president’s action as the administration’s latest assault on law enforcement.
But Obama didn’t scrap the 1033 program entirely. He just made some ground rules, like barring law enforcement from receiving armored tactical vehicles, weaponized aircraft, firearms and ammunition measuring .50 caliber and larger, grenade launchers, and bayonets. Any police agency that wanted this type of equipment have had to provide a “persuasive explanation” for why they needed it and track how they used it.
“Those restrictions went too far,” said Sessions in his remarks Monday. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”
But law enforcement experts told VICE News that abuse of the program loaded up local cops with inappropriate equipment, creating a deeper divide between citizens and police.
Ron Davis, former director of the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services and former chief of California’s East Palo Alto Police Department, said the new rules were essential to keep the program from being abused. “It ensured police agencies and local jurisdictions receiving 1033 equipment from the federal government establish local policies, training, and accountability systems governing the use of that equipment,” he said.
Stamper said the program itself wasn’t bad; it just needed limits. As police chief, Stamper said he would authorize deployment of tactical armored vehicles only if he had solid intel that his officers would encounter gunfire in their operation — while carrying out a drug raid, for example.
“[The military equipment] has contributed to the worst aspects of the drug war in this country,” he said. “MRAPS and other military vehicles are out on the streets in most cities, for carrying out search warrants in pre-dawn hours. We need to impose rigorous regulations to curb these abuses.”
There are other instances where the use of such equipment may be entirely appropriate. Sessions referred to a number of recent terror attacks in which the situation was neutralized through the use of military-grade equipment, such as the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, last summer.
Stamper recalled the time in 1984 when he was an officer in the San Diego Police Department, and he responded to a mass shooting at a McDonald’s restaurant near the border that left more than 20 dead. The most sophisticated tool they had at the time was a sharpshooter, who was struggling to get a clear aim at the gunman, who was using customers as a shield. “If we’d had military equipment, in this case an armed vehicle, that would have allowed us to get closer, or drive smack into the middle of that scene, we could have ended that massacre earlier,” he said Stamper.
But there’s a time and place for such equipment, and Obama’s efforts to change the 1033 program aimed to ensure military gear was not used in crowd-control tactics, as they were in Ferguson, or as everyday crime-fighting tools.
However, the president’s regulation efforts were interpreted by some in the law enforcement community as an ongoing personal affront to cops, rather than a commonsense necessity.
Neill Franklin, a 34-veteran of the Maryland State Police turned vocal advocate of police reform, says the law enforcement community needs to learn to differentiate between critiques of policy and general criticism of cops. After 1033 was enacted, military hardware was quickly integrated into law enforcement’s arsenal in the drug war, which has been widely recognized as a failed enterprise.
“If we say that our approach to crime has failed over the past four to five decades, unfortunately law enforcement sees that as a personal failure,” said Neill Franklin. “But it’s not; it’s a policy failure.”
“We need officers to come to the realization that the work they’ve been doing is not only meaningless but it’s counterproductive to public safety,” said Franklin. “And that’s a hard pill to swallow.”
There are other factors to explain law enforcement’s resistance to reform. “Boys like their toys,” said Stamper. “And the boys with toys want to play with them, and that’s why you’ll find many jurisdictions, small to large, going after federal funding and equipment.”
Though beefed-up military hardware may be alluring to many agencies now that the Obama regulations are gone, experts are confident that most law enforcement officials agree remilitarization isn’t the way forward.
“I am confident local police leaders and their communities will not revert to past practices,” said Davis. “Local law enforcement leaders recognize the greatest tool it possesses to fight crime and enhance public and officer safety is not a weapon — it is public trust.”