Obama restricts military equipment to police

| 22 May 2015 | 11:41

    President Barack Obama is cutting back on shipments of military equipment to local police, nine months after complaints about officers using riot gear and armored vehicles to confront protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

    Before announcing his new policies to counter the ``militarization'' of local law enforcement, Obama visited Camden police headquarters Monday to commend the way officers have improved their relationship with a poor community struggling with violence.

    Obama is banning the Pentagon and other federal agencies from providing police with certain military-style equipment, such as armored vehicles, grenade launchers and firearms or ammunition of .50 caliber or higher. Other types of military gear will only be sent to local departments under new, stricter guidelines.

    An interagency group found ``substantial risk of misusing or overusing'' items like tracked armored vehicles, high-powered firearms and camouflage uniforms, and said that could undermine trust in police.

    With police under increased scrutiny over highly publicized deaths of black suspects nationwide, Obama is unveiling the final report of a task force he created to help build confidence between police and minority communities.

    The White House said that effective immediately, the federal government will no longer fund or provide armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms. The federal government is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment already distributed.

    In addition, a longer list of equipment the federal government provides will come under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets, night vision goggles and shields. Starting in October, police will have to get approval from their city council, mayor or some other local governing body to obtain it, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on the use of the equipment.

    Programs that transfer surplus military-style equipment from the Pentagon and other federal agencies have been around for decades, but Congress increased spending to help departments acquire the gear in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

    The issue of police militarization rose to prominence last year after a white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking protests. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment.

    ``There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred,'' Obama last in August.

    A government review showed five federal agencies spent $18 billion on programs that provided equipment including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft.

    Obama issued an executive order that required federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to recommend changes that make sure they are accountable and transparent.

    The report from the 21st Century Policing task force has a long list of recommendations to improve trust in police, including encouraging more transparency about interactions with the public. The White House said 21 police agencies nationwide, including Camden and nearby Philadelphia, have agreed to start putting out never-before released data on citizen interactions like use of force, stops, citations and officer-involved shootings. The administration also is launching an online toolkit to encourage the use of body cameras to record police interactions. And the Justice Department is giving $163 million in grants to incentivize police departments to adopt the report's recommendations.

    Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Justice Department, told reporters he hoped the report could be a ``key transformational document'' in rebuilding trust that has been destroyed in recent years between police and minority communities.

    Locally, the Pike County Sheriff's Department and state police have said they don't utilize the military surplus program.

    Earlier this year, Sheriff Philip Bueki said his department could have used some military equipment in the search for Eric Frein, who is accused of shooting two state troopers during an ambush last September.