President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015
prohibiting the transfer of a host of equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms following controversy over the "militarization" of the police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
"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," Obama said at the time. "It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."
President Donald Trump will sign a new executive order Monday rescinding Obama's directive and Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the policy change during a speech at the annual conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, where he received multiple standing ovations and appeared touched by the warm welcome.
"(W)e are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law," Sessions said, as he walked the audience of mostly law enforcement officials through a broad tour of his policy changes
at the Justice Department over the past several months.
"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 a new normal," Sessions added.
Trump's new executive order was first reported
by USA Today.
Civil rights groups swiftly blasted the equipment policy shift Monday, saying the Obama-era guidelines were critical to rebuilding trust with communities of color.
"These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality," said Vanita Gupta, former head of DOJ's civil rights division under Obama and who now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone."
But the National Fraternal Order of Police applauded the news and the group's president, Chuck Canterbury, explained that the FOP has been working to roll back Obama's restrictions since the day they were announced.
"The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too 'militarized' than they were about our safety," Canterbury said in a statement. "In an effort to shut down a single program run by the Defense Department, known as the 1033 program, they restricted access to surplus equipment throughout the federal government."
Congress originally launched the so-called "1033 program" in 1990 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Defense Department to transfer surplus hardware and equipment to state and local law enforcement for use in "counter-drug activities."
The recycled gear included equipment the agencies would normally be unable to afford and the original program has resulted in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion worth of gear since the 1990s.
Armored vehicles and other military gear were also used by police officers during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
A Trump administration document describing the policy shift says that it "sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and make officers more effective."