Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would be reversing the ban put in place by the Obama administration that halted the sale of certain surplus military equipment to local police departments.
The two-year-old ban was in response to a string of racially motivated riots, the most widely publicized being that in Ferguson, Missouri.
Sessions and the administration contend that the ban was a knee-jerk reaction that was overreaching, and the restoration of the program will “improve public safety.”
But the roll back raises concerns of oversight and use of force.
In an announcement before a Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, Sessions said of the Obama-era ban, “Those restrictions went too far…We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”
Not surprisingly, most police departments favor the move, as the program -- called the 1033 program -- provides surplus equipment to departments, without stretching tight budgets. The program started in the 1990s in response to America’s war on drugs, but was expanded in 1997 and continues to include counter-terrorism activities.
And not all of the equipment goes for typical police uses. For example, some of the equipment acquired through this program has been put to use in the Houston, Texas area in response to the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. The Harris County Sherriff's Department received two heavily armored vehicles through the program. One has been used for high risk police operations, while the other is used for high water rescues.
To date, $5 billion dollars in surplus equipment has been transferred to local law enforcement agencies.
Critics of the Move
The administration’s critics say the move will turn the country into a police state, essentially turning local law enforcement into an extension of the military and put soldiers in schools. While this is likely a stretch, there are some who are concerned about the abuse of civil liberties by police who have access to military grade weapons and equipment.
Groups like the NAACP believe that this is just the administration’s attempt to openly inflame racial tensions.
US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky:
The administration says the equipment transferred in the program is “entirely defensive in nature.” Though it is unclear why police departments need bayonets, something that is included in the program.
The administration did not address this in their announcement, though there is some thought that the bayonets would be repurposed as utility knives and that mortars would be used to shoot tear gas, not high explosives.
Officers Are Safer
The timing of this policy reversal comes weeks after the deadly Charlottesville rally, in which one person was killed and 34 were injured when protesters and Antifa counter-protestors clashed over a statue of Robert E. Lee, and what it represented. The Charlottesville Police Department has been the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars from this program, though it seemed to make little difference that day.
"We live in an evil world. We can point to things that have happened across the country in schools, college campuses shopping malls and movie theaters, where we will have to deploy operationally in that fashion," said Police Chief Tim Longo in an interview after the Ferguson riots in 2014 when the 1033 program was halted.
Longo is no longer the Police Chief of Charlottesville. Some speculate that if he was the violence never would have happened.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told members of the House Judiciary Committee in May that it was critical for the Trump administration to re-instate the program. The sheriff of the largest department in the country said the equipment is vital to meeting threats faced by officers.
“What we’re trying to be able to do is to avail ourselves to the tools necessary to be able to put between our deputies and the danger — an active shooter, an explosion, those kinds of things,” said McDonnell.
Thanks, But No Thanks
But not every department feels the way that the LA County Sheriff’s Department or Charlottesville Police Department does.
Police Chief Richard Conway of the Port Chester New York Police Department says that his department has no need for military surplus equipment and uses technology instead to serve the residents of this small community.
“I think the technological leaps and bounds within the law enforcement are with technology opposed to equipment. A Humvee would be hard making it down our streets,” he says.
Residents of Port Chester say it would change the nature of their community to see this type of equipment deployed on their streets.
Fake Police Departments
There are some concerns of oversight with this program. In July, the House Committee on Armed Services met to discuss a GAO report that showed $1.2 million worth of surplus military equipment was transferred to a police department that did not actually exist.
The sting operation was set up by the GAO to determine how easy it was to obtain these items. What they found was startling.
With a fake address and no verification at all, undercover GAO agents were able to obtain assault rifles, night vision goggles, and other equipment in less than a week.
“They never did any verification, like visit our ‘location,’ and most of it was by email,” said Zina Merritt, director of the GAO’s defense capabilities and management team, which ran the operation. “It was like getting stuff off of eBay.”
In response to the findings the Defense Department promised to adhere to its current procedures for verification and undergo an internal fraud assessment by April 2018, but declined further comment.
Congress ordered the GAO to look into the program last year and their findings did not find any outright abuse. However, it did turn up a single illegitimate agency, prompting the sting.
While Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Executive Director Jim Pasco says the sting merely points to a need for tighter control at the Defense Department, the reality is that it highlights how easy it is for organizations to obtain military grade weapons and equipment, organizations such as terrorist groups.