President Obama Stops Sale of Military Equipment to Police

In response to an increase in public awareness of violent interactions between police and civilians, the Obama administration has announced it will begin limiting the access that local police forces have to military equipment.  Although the President cannot dictate police operations, he intends to enforce a measure of police de-militarization by ceasing federal transfers of select types of military gear from the armed forces to local police departments.

Public Reacts to Militarized Police Force

In the last several months, the American public has expressed a growing sense of uneasiness over police tactics, particularly those used in violent incidents such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, the Walter Scott killing in South Carolina, and the recent death of Freddie Gray of Baltimore, MD who died of suspicious circumstances while in police custody.  Response to all three incidents has created an increased scrutiny on the relationship between police and citizens, particularly members of the minority communities who argue they are targets of law enforcement violence.

In the face of public critique to incidents of police violence nationwide, President Obama addressed the concerns of an over-militarized police force during a recent speech in Camden, NJ – a notoriously high crime center where police and residents have a rocky relationship.   While there are many underlying causes of violent interactions between police and citizens, one that the President has some degree of unilateral control over is the access that state and local police forces have to military grade equipment because he arguably has authority to deny sale of equipment that may be misused in police work.

 President Obama Announces Cuts of Sale of Military Equipment to Police

When speaking to the crowds of supporters in Camden, the President explained the reasoning for his new direction, saying, “We’ve seen how militarized gear sometimes gives people a feeling like they are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them … Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments.”  While the President went on to praise the efforts of local police, and point to a series of failures that inhibit educational and economic success, he echoed a growing number of voices that have argued that giving police weapons of war turns them into combatants rather than law enforcement.  Saying that a militarized police force can “alienate and intimidate” a community rather than protect it, the President’s policy intends to cut off the flow of high-power weaponry and equipment from the armed forces to local police departments.

Police forces are armed largely through the Defense Department’ excess property program, which is called the 1033 Program and has its genesis in Congressional legislation.  Since 1997, more than $4.3 billion of excess military equipment has been sold to local police forces under 1033 with nearly $500 million sold in 2013 alone.  Under President Obama’s new plan, the military will no longer sell some of the more serious military style equipment, including armored vehicles, types of camouflage, ammunition .50-caliber or higher, bayonets, or grenade launchers.  Tactical equipment and explosives will also be limited, and available only to police forces that demonstrate training and certification that assures the department will use the gear responsibly.

Cutting Back Military Supplies to Police only a Step

Several senators have come out in support of the decision to de-militarize police, including noted Libertarian leader Rand Paul of Kentucky who told reporters he supports the President’s initiative by saying, "There is no reason that the police force should be the same as the army."  Other supporters in Congress, police forces, and policy organizations have echoed the need to reduce police access to military style weapons, but have expressed the need to balance reasonable police armament with ensuring that officers are provided with the tools they need to safely keep the peace in challenged neighborhoods. 

Reducing access to certain military grade equipment seems to be only the first of many steps that President Obama intends to take in order to address public concern about police and community relations.  The President has also announced his intention to divert federal funding to the purchase of body cameras for local police officers, and increase money spent on a variety of community policing policies that encourage better, and safer, interactions with law enforcement.  Addressing a militarized police force by halting sales of high-powered weaponry could have a positive impact on the growing issue of police violence, but the President and his advisors are interested in funneling resources to combat several factors contributing to the problem.

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