Warning of ominous crime trends, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that President Donald Trump is reversing his predecessor’s policy and resuming a program that gives local law enforcement agencies access to surplus military equipment.
Former President Barack Obama ended the program in 2015 amid concerns following unrest the prior year in Ferguson, Missouri, that the “militarization” of police forces was driving a wedge between cops and the people they serve.
Sessions told a convention of the Fraternal Order of Police that the program would resume under an executive order Trump will sign Monday.
“He is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies’ ability to get equipment through federal programs, including lifesaving gear,” he said to applause.
Sessions said departments once again will be able to obtain Kevlar helmets, armored vehicles, helicopters and other equipment taxpayers already have paid for. He said the program previously had turned over $5.4 billion in equipment.
“This is the type of equipment that officers needed when they pursued and ultimately killed terrorists in San Bernardino,” he said, referring to the 2015 attack at an office Christmas party in California by a pair of Islamic extremists.
An administration summary of the upcoming policy changes distributed to law enforcement groups said that “assets that would otherwise be scrapped can be re-purposed to help state, local and tribal law enforcement better protect public safety and reduce crime.”
Such equipment would restore “the full scope of a longstanding program for recycling surplus, lifesaving gear from the Department of Defense, along with restoring the full scope of grants used to purchase this type of equipment from other sources,” the summary stated. “Much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is entirely defensive in nature … that protect officers in active shooter scenarios and other dangerous situations.”
The initiative drew a rebuke from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who vowed to try to block the order in Congress.
“It is one thing for federal officials to work with local authorities to reduce or solve crime, but it is another for them to subsidize militarization,” he said in a statement.
Monday’s executive order is the latest in a series of steps that Trump and Sessions have taken to reorient criminal justice policy after eight years of Obama. The president signed executive orders instructing the Justice Department to support law enforcement, reduce crime, and disrupt transnational criminal organizations.
Sessions in March ordered federal prosecutors to more aggressively prosecute gun crimes, has resurrected efforts to seize assets of drug dealers, and has ordered U.S. attorneys offices to charge the most serious offenses that can be proved.
Congress created the 1033 program almost 30 years ago as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. The program allowed local law enforcement officers to request and use some types of militarized heavy equipment in dealing with drug crimes and counterterrorism operations in particular.
But after a Ferguson police officers fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, the ensuing riots and racial unrest across the country spurred a national conversation about the police officers’ use of force in dealing with the protesters and the appropriateness of maintaining a militarized police force. As a result, Obama announced in May 2015 that the U.S. military could no longer transfer some types of heavy gear and equipment to police officers for training and use.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like it’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said when he announced the policy changes. “So we’re going to prohibit equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a reform advisory group, after the Ferguson riots took place. The group lauded the military gear ban as part of its recommendations for minimizing “the appearance of a military operation” when dealing with violent protesters.
“Avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust,” the task force recommended.
The policy shift occurred against the backdrop of rising crime and epidemic drug overdoses across the country.
“Violent crime is coming back — significantly so,” Sessions said Monday. “The murder rate surged nearly 11 percent in nationwide 2015, the largest increase since 1968. Per-capita homicide rates are up in 27 of our 35 largest cities, some dramatically up.”
Sessions said he does not believe the figures are an anomaly.
“My best judgment is that something’s happening out there that is troubling, that this is not just a blip,” he said. “And we have got to rededicate ourselves to reversing this trend before it gets out of control, as it was in the 1960s and ’70s.”
Obama’s decision to scale back police militarization soured his relationship with police departments and unions alike.
“The [Fraternal Order of Police] is the most aggressive law enforcement advocacy group in Washington, and we will be at our most aggressive in asserting the need for officer safety and officer rights in any police changes that are to be effected,” FOP Executive Director James Pasco told Politico shortly after the ban was announced.
Pasco stressed the need for law enforcement officers to receive the equipment and support that they need to carry out their jobs effectively.
“We need to only look back to Baltimore to see what happens when officers are sent out ill-equipped in a disturbance situation,” Pasco said. “Because you don’t like the optics, you can’t send police officers out to be hurt or killed.”
Sessions noted that 66 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty last year, a 61 percent increase over the previous year. Troublingly, he said, about a third of deaths resulted from premeditated, unprovoked attacks.
Yet some seek to undermine law enforcement officers by tarring all officers with the criminal acts of a few, Sessions said.
“This slander has got to stop,” he said. “Their divisive rhetoric treats police officers like they are the problem. Instead of the crucial ally that you all are. Instead of the solution that you are.”
(photo credit, homepage image: Tony Webster, Wikimedia; photo credit, article image: Elvert Barnes, Flickr)