'It's a Publicity Stunt': Critics Say Obama's Ban On Police Military Gear Falls Short
It has become an emblematic image of police militarization: a half-dozen heavily outfitted officers, assault rifles drawn, advancing on an African American man in a T-shirt with his hands way up.
The police – photographed in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer – are wearing helmets and goggles and knee pads and gas masks. The man is wearing a cap from Cabela’s, the outdoors store.
The picture would seem to epitomize the kind of “wrong message” President Barack Obama denounced this week in unveiling new rules to ban “equipment made for the battlefield” from the arsenals of local police forces.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force,” Obama said. “So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Yet none of the equipment in the picture, apart from the camouflage uniforms, is mentioned in the new prohibitions. And interviews with government officials and experts suggest the new White House guidelines could fall miserably short of preventing scenes of police outfitted in military gear facing off with unarmed protesters in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and beyond.
Professor Peter Kraska of the Eastern Kentucky University school of justice studies called the White House rollout of its new rules on Monday a “publicity stunt”
“Basically we had a big announcement that there would be restrictions,” Kraska told the Guardian. “It talked about armored personnel carriers. Lots of the media reported it, verbatim of course, the talking points.
“But all you had to do was barely scratch under the surface – and it’s nothing more than symbolic politics.”
Critics of the new White House guidelines say that the list of prohibited gear is far too brief, and question whether the federal bureaucracy will be up to enforcing rules requiring local agencies to complete training and demonstrate compliance before they are permitted federal dollars to buy certain gear.
The list of prohibited equipment includes seven items: tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles of any kind; firearms of .50â€caliber or higher; ammunition of .50â€caliber or higher; grenade launchers; bayonets; and camouflage uniforms.
Not on the list are some of the most intimidating items in police arsenals: modified M-16 assault rifles, Humvees, helicopters, night-vision goggles, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), BearCat vehicles, military-style helmets, shin guards, shields – and on.
Of the seven items on the “prohibited equipment list”, six have not been distributed to local law enforcement agencies by the Pentagon for years, according to defense department spokesman Mark Wright.
“The only one that we were still issuing at this time were the bayonets,” said Wright, noting that the blades were not typically used as bayonets attached to rifles, that he knew of, but as “big, sturdy knives”.
“So that’s the immediate effect of the program.”
The White House declined to comment on the question of whether the new prohibited equipment list is too short, directing questions to Justice Department officials. They said that new restrictions on how federal grants can be spent, and new certification protocols for gear transfers, were as important as the gear lists.
The new guidelines, based on recommendations of a presidential working group, would require local law enforcement agencies to obtain special approval before buying items on a “controlled gear list” (drones, flashbangs, battering rams) with federal money, and require officers to be trained to use the gear.
Police departments would ostensibly be barred from buying the equipment with federal funds, but tracking the buying activities of 18,000 law enforcement agencies – the precise number is unknown, because the federal government is latein delivering its 2012 census of law enforcement agencies – represents a daunting bureaucratic challenge.
“If the federal government really followed through with true oversight, which they have not done for 30 years– these programs have been a fiasco for 30 years – but if this time around, and please note the skepticism, if this time around they manage to pull it off, it could make a small difference,” said Kraska. “But the track record is pretty poor.”
The Pentagon spokesman said that even though certain military gear had been out of circulation for years, there was an advantage to making it official.
“In my opinion, the advantage of the president’s decision is to codify that, so that it’s not just at the behest of a current secretary of defense,” said Wright. “Because another secretary of defense could change his mind, conceivably.”
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman contacted on Thursday morning said it would take additional time to respond to questions about how the new guidelines would change the department’s administration of federal grants.
For some communities, the new rules on banned military gear have come too late to keep weapons of the battlefield out of police arsenals. The federal government had no plans to confiscate locally owned gear, officials said. Any equipment the Department of Defense still holds title to could be recalled, but there were no immediate plans to do so.
Kraska said the public conversation around criminal justice reform, at least, had advanced in a promising direction.
“There is a tremendous space and opportunity for something real to happen here,” Kraska said. “We have high-level politicians, and we have a presidential candidate that’s actually talking about ratcheting back our punitive criminal justice system. Nobody would have predicted that. So there absolutely is a lot of room for optimism.
“But this is, I think, a perfect, emblematic case of how good intentions can lead to nothing substantive.”
‘We’ve never issued any weaponized aircraft’
Wright described the recent history of distribution by the Pentagon of items on the prohibited equipment list, under the 1033 program to transfer Defense Department property to local and state law enforcement agencies:
Tracked armored vehicles: “We actually stopped providing that ourselves back in 2011, about four years ago we stopped issuing those.”
Weaponized aircraft, vessels or vehicles: “We’ve never issued any weaponized aircraft vessels or vehicles of any kind.”
Firearms/ammunition of .50-caliber or higher: “Firearms of .50 caliber or higher have never been issued, weapons or ammunition … We’ve given out tens of thousands of modified M-16s, modified M-14s, and M1911a1 pistols, the old .45s from World War II.”
Grenade launchers: “We did issue grenade launchers. We stopped in 1999. It’s how the police used tear gas in a riot situation. They were issued the one-shot, the Vietnam-era M79 grenade launchers. That stopped 15 years ago.”
Camouflage uniforms: “We did give those out until 2008 – that was actually stopped by the army, who decided to stop issuing those.”
Bayonets: “Bayonets were provided up till the president decided to put the prohibition on that. The bayonets is an interesting one because people think bayonet, and they think attached to a rifle, held by a soldier to engage in combat.
“We actually asked – because we’ve given out thousands of them – and when’s the last time you’ve seen the cop with a bayonet on the end of his rifle? I’ve never seen that.
“If you take it off the rifle, it becomes just a big sturdy knife, for cutting into car accidents, seat belts … It would’ve been probably less controversial if we put ‘big sturdy knife’ instead of ‘bayonet’.”