President Trump is reversing the course set by his predecessor and renewing a Pentagon program to send weapons of war—from bayonets to grenade launchers to drones to armored trucks—to thousands of police departments across America.
The move, by executive order, rescinds a 2015 decree by President Obama in the wake of excessive military-style policing of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, that limited the Pentagon’s ability to transfer some surplus arms and hardware to state and local police departments. Trump’s order also dismantles a federal interagency group that sought to oversee the transfer of the arms and gear, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Today the president made good on his campaign promise to the Fraternal Order of Police to rescind Executive Order 13688 and put thousands of bayonets and hundreds of grenade launchers from the U.S. military back in the hands of police,” wrote Kanya Bennett, a legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington Office. “It also leaves law enforcement’s federally provided drones, explosives, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles without oversight. The result? Weapons of war will again be used to police our communities, no questions asked. Your town could be the next Ferguson or Fallujah.”
Progressive police organizations criticized the move, saying the weaponry belonged on the battlefield and not in community police arsenals.
“Military equipment should only be transferred to police if departments can prove appropriate use, training, and oversight, and that the equipment will only be used in specific and necessary circumstances, such as active shooter scenarios,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “At tremendous risk to public safety, the 1033 Program doesn’t require these vital measures. We must stop reinforcing the mentality that police are warriors and civilians are the enemy – it endangers everyone.”
The White House press office issued Trump’s order, entitled, “Restoring state, tribal, and local law enforcement’s access to life-saving equipment and resources,” without any statement or briefing material.
The Obama administration’s oversight was problem-plagued, Bennett noted, citing a recent sting operation where the U.S. Government Accountability Office pretended to be a federal law enforcement agency and received surplus military arms. But now, it’s possible that police departments that have been investigated by the Department of Justice for misconduct (until the administration stopped those inquiries) could receive Department of Defense weapons, she said.
“Even with the interagency working group’s oversight since January 2015, we continue to see unwarranted police militarization post-Ferguson,” Bennett wrote. “Just look at law enforcement’s response at Standing Rock, where armored vehicles, automatic rifles, concussion grenades, sound cannons, and water cannons were used against peaceful protestors. Consider Baton Rouge, where those organizing around the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling were met with militarization and excessive force. And we still have SWAT teams detonating flash-bang grenades near a 9-month-old when executing home searches for drugs. Do you remember Baby Bou Bou?”
Some combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Republicans in Congress have questioned the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 program.
Veterans told Vanity Fair in August 2014 that they saw better-armed local police in Ferguson than in some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. “I couldn’t get past the fact that the police in Ferguson were wearing better battle-rattle and carrying more tricked-out weapons than my infantry platoon used in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan,” wrote Matt Farwell. “Looking at the lines of cops facing off against angry protesters, I was alarmed at their war-like paramilitary posturing.”
Meanwhile, in Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, have called the redistribution of wares like trucks with gun turrets excessive and said it blurred lines between a “police response and military response.”
Still, it’s not clear what response, if any, will come from Capitol Hill. The ACLU’s Bennett said Congress should suspend the 1033 program. On a local level, she said communities “must call out the federal government for instigating police militarization” and “take control of the weapons of war coming to their towns.”
“We know that militarized policing is not “effective policing,” as it does not deescalate, reduce bias, or improve police-community relations,” Bennett said. “And we hope this administration does not think that treating neighborhoods like war zones is an effective way to create ‘more community engagement.’”
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).