WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump will repeal restrictions that former President Barack Obama placed on police access to excess military gear, allowing the federal government to immediately resume handing out free bayonets, grenade launchers, tracked armored vehicles such as tanks and other equipment to law enforcement departments around the country.
Trump will sign an executive order on Monday that repeals the limits Obama placed on the access to some military surplus items in 2015. Obama’s move followed the “provocative” response to the August 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where St. Louis County Police officers atop armored vehicles pointed sniper rifles at peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight. Policing experts in a report for the Justice Department found that the police actions “inflamed tensions” and violated constitutional rights.
Trump’s forthcoming executive order was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police on Monday ― and quickly spurred criticism. Other items that federal government can again supply to local law officers include camouflage uniforms, weaponized aircraft, and ammunition above .50 caliber.
A Pentagon official couldn’t come up with a reason that a police officer would need a bayonet during a hearing on police militarization in 2014. But some law enforcement officials have suggested they could be used as utility knives, a view the Trump administration has adopted. Grenade launchers, meanwhile, can be used to fire off non-lethal weapons and tear gas canisters.
Trump’s executive order will also kill requirements that law enforcement agencies had to meet before obtaining helicopters, planes, riot helmets, batons, drones, armored and tactical vehicles, and explosives and pyrotechnics. Under Obama’s order, police departments had to get permission from their local government, complete training requirements and give a “persuasive” reason why they needed such equipment. No more.
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the guidelines were put in place to “ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality,” and that it was important for law officers not to treat communities as war zones.
“The safeguards were reasonable: Police departments don’t need grenade launchers and bayonets to protect our communities; they should have the appropriate training for the equipment they use; and the federal government should have checks and accountability measures for law enforcement’s use of certain military equipment,” Gupta, who now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.
“Most in law enforcement understand why these guidelines and this approach to policing are critical to rebuilding trust with the communities they serve, especially communities of color, and also to reducing the risk of violence in our communities,” she said. “In the absence of leadership from this administration, state and local governments must create their own guidelines for limiting the acquisition of military equipment, and how it can be used.”
“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.”
Kanya Bennett of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it “defies logic to arm the police with weapons of war — grenade launchers, high-caliber assault weapons, and more.” She said the executive order “erases the sensible limits placed by the Obama administration after Ferguson” on the types of military equipment the federal government gave to local police.
“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,” Bennett said.
The Trump administration objects to the notion that optics ― the way it looks when local law officers use the excess military equipment ― should affect what weapons the federal government hands out. The administration also believes the restrictions imposed by Obama created the impression the local officers weren’t worthy of trust.
This article has been updated with comment from Kanya Bennett of the ACLU.