Why Obama's New Equipment Ban Does Nothing to Demilitarize the Police

Claire Bernish
May 18, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) Local police agencies will no longer be able to acquire grenade launchers, bayonets, or weaponized vehicles, and obtaining riot gear, MRAPs, and other military-style equipment will be limited to those who can prove they need it and know how and when to use it.

As images of armored vehicles and battle-ready police clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson last August hit the mainstream, the alarm which civil rights groups had been sounding for years about an aggressive, militarized police force gained widespread support overnight. In an unexpected move, President Obama responded to public outcry by prohibiting law enforcement from obtaining some of those items, and requiring verified training and detailed justification for the acquisition of a list of other militarized equipment. Though the ban is immediate, law enforcement agencies will have a few months to phase in the other restrictions.

But does any of this really accomplish anything?

Timed to coincide with a task force report, the new ban is being implemented as the judicious use of military accouterments by tactically-geared police at otherwise peaceful events has created a suspicious and hostile relationship between communities and those agencies. As the report explains it, there is a need to “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mind-set to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”

A number federal programs have granted the equipment, but lack sufficient regulatory guidelines for how they are “structured, implemented, [and] audited.” One small-town council member described their grant justification in the following way: “Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to.”

One of the most popular and widely known programs is the Dept of Defense’s 1033 Program, which has distributed $5.4 billion in equipment ($980 million in 2014 alone) since its inception under the NDAA of 1997. Methods to recall some of the now-banned equipment are being examined, but the stunning lack of oversight up to this point will make this a difficult task at best, and doesn’t address the use of more common items which have caused the increased tension in the first place. Law enforcement agencies will be required to “adopt policies addressing protection of civil rights and civil liberties in the use of [this] equipment”, but the fact that such items will remain relatively easy to obtain makes the ban appear more a gesture than a serious attempt at reform. Though MRAPs and riot gear are protest mainstays, when was the last time police showed up in tracked vehicles sporting bayonets?

As a matter of fact, the recommendations about the restricted items are noteworthy for what isn’t included: firm and thorough rules for law enforcement agencies which would mandate when and how to use military equipment which has previously been distributed. These protocols are required for any future acquisitions, but the recommendations do not specify applicability to materials that LEAs are already using and abusing with striking regularity. It would be easy to view this ban as an important step; but its omissions are glaring.

For any tangible difference in policing to occur, there must be sweeping changes to policies that dictate strict and uniform rules for every aspect of such military gear, including its sole use as a last resort. The White House consistently touts a “community policing” directive, but fails to implement the necessary means to bring that to fruition. Without logical reforms, law enforcement officers who are trained like the military, given the tools of the military, are largely exempt from punishment for brutal tactics, and whose modus operandi equates civilians with enemy forces, the rift between police and their communities will only continue to grow.

Yes, of course it’s good to know there is now less chance you will meet your fate at the end of a bayonet, but don’t be fooled by a by a band-aid when only major surgery will solve the problem.

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