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Trump to Lift Ban on Military Gear for Local Police Agencies

A BAE Caiman MRAP acquired by the Summit County Sheriffs Office in Northeast Ohio. (Raymond Wambsgans/CC BY-SA 2.0)
A BAE Caiman MRAP acquired by the Summit County Sheriffs Office in Northeast Ohio. (Raymond Wambsgans/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Trump administration will lift a two-year-old ban on police departments across the United States getting surplus military equipment as part of an overall effort to support local law enforcement agencies.

“I am here to announce that President Trump is issuing an executive order that will make it easier to protect yourselves and your communities,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told police officers Monday, according to prepared remarks.

“He is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies’ ability to get equipment through federal programs, including life-saving gear like Kevlar vests and helmets and first responder and rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now,” Sessions said.

The transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies was authorized under Sec. 1033 of the 1997 defense policy bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency transfers the surplus equipment to police departments at throwaway prices.

In recent years such transfers have included military-grade assault rifles, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles designed to withstand roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq and night-vision goggles.

The 1033 program has “recycled more than $5.4 billion in used gear and equipment that taxpayers had already purchased, and made it available for your agencies to repurpose it in the fight against terrorism, crime, and disaster relief,” Sessions said in his prepared remarks. “Equipment like helicopters and armored vehicles are also vitally important to emergency and disaster response efforts.”

Sessions spoke at the biennial conference of the National Fraternal Order of Police, before the executive order was officially released by the White House.

The ban on police getting military gear was put in place during the Obama administration after violent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in August 2014. Brown, who was black, and the officer, who was white and not indicted in the shooting, touched off a national debate about race relations and law enforcement. 

When protesters filled the streets of Ferguson and its neighborhoods to oppose the shooting, they were met with heavily armed police in armored vehicles that Obama said gave local residents an impression that the police “were an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of a community that’s protecting them and serving them.”

The ban was recommended by a federal working group that looked into the police response in Ferguson. The list of banned items included aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command-and-control units, battering rams and riot gear.

To receive such equipment, police departments were required to meet national standards, track equipment use and receive approval from the federal government. USA TODAY was first to report that Trump would lift the ban put in place by Obama.

The Trump administration’s announcement was met with criticism from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who says he will oppose the move. In the past, the conservative has tried to reach out to black communities on issues such as policing and economic empowerment.

“Americans must never sacrifice their liberty for an illusive and dangerous, or false, security,” Paul said on Twitter. “I disagree with AG Jeff Sessions on 1033” program.  “It’s one thing for fed officials to work w/local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It’s another for them to subsidize militarization.” 

In his remarks to the police group, Sessions said that lifting of the ban was part of the Trump administration’s “back the blue” program designed to “support our law enforcement at all levels.”

As part of that effort, Sessions in July said the Justice Department would expand the civil asset forfeiture program that allows federal and local law enforcement officials to seize and keep private property suspected of being involved in a crime. The program was restricted by the Obama administration.

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