Trump Endorses Militarization of Police, Rolls Back Obama-Era Restrictions on Providing Military Gear

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Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri on August 11, 2014. The issue of police using military-grade weapons and vehicles rose to national attention during the Ferguson protests. Getty Images

In August 2014, many looked on in horror as law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to ongoing protests about police conduct with military-grade weapons and vehicles. The police involved were equipped as if they were going to war, even though they were supposedly there only to protect the community and help maintain peace.  

Ferguson put militarization of U.S. police into the national spotlight and utlimately led former President Barack Obama to issue an executive order in 2015 banning the sale of certain military equipment to local police. It included armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms. 

Three years after Ferguson, the Trump administration has announced it's rolling back the Obama-era decision, a move that's being met with criticism from organizations concerned with reducing policy brutality. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed the plan to send surplus military equipment to police while speaking to a group of law enforcement officials in Nashville on Monday. 

"I am here to announce that President Trump is issuing an executive order that will make it easier to protect yourselves and your communities. He is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies' ability to get equipment through federal programs, including life saving gear like Kevlar vests and helmets and first responder and rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now," Sessions said. 

Sheriff David Clarke, a longtime Trump supporter, applauded the move on Twitter, saying it represented "another promise kept" by the president. 

Some disagree with the notion this decision will put police in a better position to protect themselves and others. 

Speaking with Newsweek, Justin J. Mazzola, a researcher for Amnesty International USA, said the Trump administration's decision is "really concerning in terms of what we’ve seen previously. When [police] have this type of equipment, they’re more likely to use it."

In Mazzola's view, providing police with military equipment "puts them in the mindset that force is necessary."

The ACLU echoed these sentiments in a statement that followed Sessions's remarks. Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU, stated, "Today’s executive order erases the sensible limits placed by the Obama administration after Ferguson on the kinds of military equipment flowing from the federal government to local police and into our neighborhoods."

Bennett continued: "Tensions between law enforcement and communities remain high, yet the president and the attorney general are giving the police military-grade weaponry instead of practical, effective ways to protect and serve everyone."

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued a statement on Monday making similar arguments. 

"Today’s action is a slap in the face to communities that have worked to end the militarization of our nation’s police force following the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri," Clarke said. 

Responding to the news via Twitter, Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, said, "Rolling back those restrictions sends a pretty clear message.... Under this administration, there will be zero interest in discussion, oversight or prevention of police abuse."

Their consensus is that providing law enforcement with military-grade equipment produces a dangerous, warrior mentality that could make the police more aggressive toward the public. 

Beyond human rights and civil liberties groups, it seems some Republicans are also unhappy with this decision, including Senator Rand Paul.

On Twitter, Paul wrote, "The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It's one thing for fed officials to work w/ local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It's another for them to subsidize militarization."

The transfer of extra weapons and gear from the military to local police began via the 1033 program, which was created by Congress in 1989 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. 

The program was originally intended to help with drug enforcement, and was expanded to cover counterterrorism in 1996, according to NPR.

Since the 1990s, the program has resulted in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion worth of military gear.

The 1033 program received little scrutiny or public attention until Ferguson. After Americans saw what could occur when police were armed like soldiers, many were strongly opposed to the practice.

HuffPost/YouGov poll from August 2014 found that only 28 percent supported giving military-grade weapons and vehicles to police, while 51 percent felt the use of such equipment was "going too far."

When Obama announced he was banning the transfer of certain military equipment to police in 2015, he said, "We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."

The Trump administration, which has already moved to undo other Obama-era reforms on criminal justice, apparently does not agree.