WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will unveil a new plan Monday to roll back limits on a controversial program that provides local law enforcement agencies with surplus military gear, marking the end of a policy implemented during the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 prohibiting the transfer of a host of equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms following controversy over the “militarization” of the police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
“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,” Obama said at the time. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”
President Donald Trump will sign a new executive order Monday rescinding Obama’s directive and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will address the policy change during a speech at the annual conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday.
The new executive order was first reported by USA Today.
Civil rights groups blasted the policy shift, saying the Obama-era guidelines were critical to rebuilding trust with communities of color.
“These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality,” said Vanita Gupta, former head of DOJ’s civil rights division under Obama and who now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone.”
But the National Fraternal Order of Police applauded the news and the group’s president, Chuck Canterbury, explained that the FOP has been working to roll back Obama’s restrictions since the day they were announced.
“The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too ‘militarized’ than they were about our safety,” Canterbury said in a statement. “In an effort to shut down a single program run by the Defense Department, known as the 1033 program, they restricted access to surplus equipment throughout the federal government.”
Congress originally launched the so-called “1033 program” in 1990 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Defense Department to transfer surplus hardware and equipment to state and local law enforcement for use in “counter-drug activities.”
The recycled gear included equipment the agencies would normally be unable to afford and the original program has resulted in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion worth of gear since the 1990s.
Armored vehicles and other military gear were also used by police officers during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
A Trump administration document describing the policy shift says that it “sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and make officers more effective.”