St. Louis County Police during protests in Ferguson November 2014. (Photo Courtesy of the St. Louis American)
President Obama this week announced steps to demilitarize local police, limiting and outright banning access to certain weapons. The President made the announcement in Camden, N.J., May 18 during remarks about the administration’s broader efforts on law enforcement reform.
“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. It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message. So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments,” he said.
As part of its Program 1033, the Department of Defense was authorized to transfer defense material to federal and state agencies for use in law enforcement, particularly those associated with counter-drug and counterterrorism activities. Under the new rules, law enforcement departments are prohibited from acquiring tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and large-caliber weapons and ammunition. Access to explosives, riot equipment and wheeled armored or tactical vehicles will also be limited. And, if departments seek access to any of these controlled equipment, they would need to provide detailed justification and officers would have to be properly trained in their use.
Problems plaguing policing in the United States was highlighted in stark relief last fall when demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., took to the streets after 18-year-old African-American teen Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer. Protestors were met by officers clad in in bulletproof vests and armed with military-grade rifles and armored vehicles, some of whom launched tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds and called demonstrators “animals.”
The situation prompted calls for reform from civil rights groups, who also shared recommendations which were reflected in the reports from the White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“We are grateful that President Obama and the Policing Task Force he appointed listened to the calls for reform made by civil rights groups and activists. We also owe a debt of gratitude to those in Ferguson who used their activism to expose the shocking truth about local law enforcement reliance on this type of equipment,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in a statement.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., who co-sponsored the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, also hailed the president’s announcement.
“Last June, I was only one of 62 House members (43 Democrats) to support an amendment that would have prevented the Department of Defense from distributing heavy weapons and vehicles to local police forces. While I applaud the efforts and courage our police departments continue to show each and every day, I feel that militarizing them will not solve the unrest that continues among our communities,” Edwards said. “I thank the President for leading on this ongoing issue of building strong relationships between law enforcement officers and those who they serve and protect.”