President Donald Trump is preparing to lift restrictions on surplus military equipment that can be passed on to local law enforcement agencies in spite of past concerns that armored vehicles and other gear were escalating confrontations with protesters.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press indicate Trump was preparing to sign an executive order undoing an Obama administration directive that restricted police agencies’ access to grenade launchers, bullet-proof vests, riot shields, firearms, ammunition, and other surplus military equipment.
Trump’s order would fully restore the program under which “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,” according to the documents.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions could outline the changes during a August 28 speech to the national conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, a person familiar with the matter said. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss the plan ahead of an official announcement.
The changes would be another way in which Trump and Sessions are enacting a law-and-order agenda that views federal support of local police as a way to drive down violent crime.
National police organizations have long been pushing Trump to hold to his promise to once again make the equipment available to local and state police departments, many of which see it as needed to ensure officers aren’t put in danger when responding to active shooter calls and terrorist attacks. An armored vehicle played a key role in the police response to the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
In 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to give surplus equipment to police to help fight drugs, which then gave way to the fight against terrorism.
Groups across the political spectrum have expressed concern about the militarization of police, arguing that the equipment encourages and escalates confrontations with officers. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 that severely limited the surplus program, partly triggered by public outrage over the use of military gear during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Police responded in riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs, and armored vehicles. At times they also pointed assault rifles at protesters.
Obama’s order prohibited the federal government from providing grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, and firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or greater to police. As of December, the agency overseeing the program had recalled at least 100 grenade launchers, more than 1,600 bayonets, and 126 tracked vehicles — those that run on continuous, tank-like tracks instead of wheels — that were provided through the program.
Trump vowed to rescind the executive order in a written response to a Fraternal Order of Police questionnaire that helped him win an endorsement from the organization of rank-and-file officers. He reiterated his promise during a gathering of police officers in July, saying the equipment still on the streets is being put to good use.
“In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast we have none left,” Trump said.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said in a statement August 27 that it is “exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible” for the administration to lift the ban.
“Just a few summers ago, our nation watched as Ferguson raised the specter of increased police militarization. The law enforcement response there and in too many places across the country demonstrated how perilous, especially for Black and Brown communities, a militarized police force can be,” the LDF said.
“The President’s decision to make this change in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville and against a backdrop of frayed relations between police and communities of color further reflects this administration’s now open effort to escalate racial tensions in our country,” the organization said.
The documents, first reported by USA Today, say Trump’s order would emphasize public safety over the appearance of the heavily equipment. They describe much of the gear as “defensive in nature,” intended to protect officers from danger.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the expected move.
Most police agencies rarely require military equipment for daily use but see a need to have it available, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
“It is hard to imagine any situation where a grenade launcher or bayonet would be something that a major police department would need, but defensive shields and armored vehicles kept on reserve will be welcome,” he said.
Sessions has said he believes improving morale for local law enforcement is key to curbing spikes in violence in some cities. The plan to restore access to military equipment comes after Sessions has said he intends to pull back on court-enforceable improvement plans with troubled police departments, which he says can malign entire agencies and make officers less aggressive on the street.
Consent decrees were a hallmark of the Obama administration’s efforts to overhaul certain law enforcement agencies, sometimes after racially charged encounters like the one in Ferguson.