The increasing militarization of local police departments has been one of the most troubling issues to gain widespread notice in the wake of uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson. In response to justified fears and concerns about police use of military-grade weapons of war against American citizens, the White House today announced it will place new limits on the acquisition of some military equipment by police around the country. In some cases, the Executive Order will outright ban federal funds for local police purchase of certain kinds of military-style weapons. In other cases, it will significantly limit access to some of those weapons.
These plans are the result of the findings from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group assembled last December after tensions between police and many of the communities they serve were revealed. According to a White House press release distributed this morning, the new policies can be used to help “build and maintain the all-important trust between the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day, and the communities they have sworn to serve and protect.”
Following a top-to-bottom review of federal programs which fund and support equipment for local police departments, the White House issued an executive order preventing further transfers of tracked armored vehicles (tanks), weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, .50-caliber or higher firearms and ammunition, and camouflage uniforms.”
A second list of equipment to which access will continue but be more tightly restricted and monitored includes "armored vehicles with wheels—not tank treads—like Humvees, other tactical aircraft, riot batons and battering rams, specialized firearms and ammunition below .50 caliber weapons that are not part of routinely issued police arms, and riot helmets and shields.”
The White House’s executive order will require local police departments and municipal officials to justify why they need the weaponry, undergo additional training if they get it, and then track its use and report those activities to the federal law enforcement agencies.
These steps are intended to bring more accountability and transparency, the White House said. However, it is important to note that they are not going to vastly change the appearance and tactics of overly armed police that have turned some street protests and marches into incendiary confrontations.
As AlterNet has previously reported, academics studying excessive police have criticized Obama’s task force for essentially empowering a new generation of police to be trained to use weaponry that has no legitimate role in local law enforcement. (Read interview with Peter Kraska, a professor and chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who the White House consulted but later ignored. Read "11 Shocking Facts About America's Militarized Police Forces" here. Also "How the Feds Have Turned America Into a Warzone" here and Stephen Colbert on police militarization here.)
The new rules will prohibit and limit the transfer of most overtly militarized weapons to local police by federal agencies and/or using federal funds. However, local police departments who want to use these weapons still have the option to do so with their own monies.
Beyond the military weaponry, the White House is encouraging other reforms to create greater police accountability. It announced more than $100 million in grants for community policing projects, as well as a pilot body camera program. According the White House press release, the project “will help local law enforcement agencies develop, implement, and evaluate body-worn camera programs…[and the] DOJ is releasing an online clearinghouse of resources designed to help law enforcement professionals and the communities they serve plan and implement body-worn camera (BWC) programs.”
The New York Times reports that Ronald L. Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the U.S. Department of Justice, told reporters, “We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing. We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, but it must also include a presence for justice.”
What will be telling is how many local police departments will return the now-banned military weaponry—that is one provision in the White House announcement. It will also be telling how many police department will file reports on the use of these weapons with federal officials. For years, the FBI has not received reports on gun deaths from many red states with strong NRA presences.
The White House press release listed participating 20 cities, from giants like Los Angeles and Atlanta, to smaller locales like Camden, New Jersey, and Rutland, Vermont. However, there are more than 12,000 police departments in America, according to federal statistics. One of the 20 departments partnering with the White House is in Oakland, Calif, which has a long history of abusive policing, spying on protesters and shooting them with wooden pegs and rubber bullets. OPD has been placed under federal court supervision, for now. It remains to be seen how the White House initiative will change that city’s culture of aggressive policing and tactics.
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