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Should the transfer of excess defense articles to police be limited?

Should the transfer of excess defense articles to police be limited?

An evidence file on this topic is available on the Extemp main page

The Trump administration has reversed Obama restrictions that made it more difficulty for local police forces to gain access to excess military grade weapons:

On Monday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing rules by former President Barack Obama that restricted police departments’ ability to obtain surplus military weapons. The Obama-era restrictions curtailed programs, such as the 1033 program, that effectively let police obtain excess military gear from federal agencies for free or through federal dollars.

Obama’s 2015 rules were a response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, in which cops used military-grade equipment to counter the protests — a move that many critics at the time considered excessive, given that the demonstrations were mostly peaceful.

The Trump administration has argued that military equipment is necessary for police to do their jobs in a safe manner. “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 said at a conference by the National Fraternal Order of Police on Monday. [Lopez, August 28th, Vox]

At the height of the program, the Department of Defense gave away more than $1 billion in equipment to police.

This is the specific equipment that the Obama rules made more difficult for policy to get:

I say, “more difficult” because the police could still gain access to most of this material if they applied for it (The General Accounting Office (GAO)) explains the weakness of the Obama era regulations and controls here.

There are practical changes, however. Some restrictions have been lifted and others have been relaxed:

Under the new executive order, police departments will gain easier access to equipment that had either been put under greater restriction – such as battering rams, riot helmets and specialized ammunition – or that had been prohibited outright, such as bayonets and tracked tank-like vehicles. [US News & World Report, August 28th, https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-08-28/trump-to-rescind-obama-era-restrictions-on-military-gear-for-police]

Some additional details on what police can now access are available here.

So, while the practical impact of reversing these restrictions is probably not large, it is very symbolic — it indicates that the Trump administration supports the “militarization” of America’s police forces. Combine this with Trump’s recent pardon of Sheriff Arpaio, and the symbolism becomes more powerful.  Unlike Obama, the administration is working to strengthen the perception of the police as being tough on crime:  German Lopez explains:

The task force wanted the Obama administration to draw a clear line between police’s “guardian” role and the military’s “warrior” role. The administration figured that one way to do that was by making it more difficult for police to obtain weapons that are seen by the public as tools of warriors instead of guardians….

But this is also part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to unleash the police through a 1980s-style “tough on crime” framework.

Earlier this year, for example, Sessions’s Justice Department pulled back investigations of local and state police forces. The Obama administration aggressively pursued the investigations, finding that police departments often discriminated against minority residents and using the findings to push for reforms. Without these investigations, the federal government isn’t going to have as much of a role in ending police misconduct and discriminatory practices.

Some police chiefs, such as Houston’s chief, argue the equipment has many practical benefits:

The comments echo the sentiments of local police chiefs such as Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who told a House subcommittee in May that “there is no offensive equipment other than rifles” accessed through the program. His department has been using helicopters and other surplus military gear in its ongoing search-and-rescue operations tied to Hurricane Harvey. 08-28/trump-to-rescind-obama-era-restrictions-on-military-gear-for-police]

One problem with this approach is that it reduces the cooperation with the community that is needed to solve crime. Lopez continues:

Criminal justice experts argue, however, that police actually need to rebuild trust from their communities if they want to effectively combat crime.

There’s a longstanding criminological concept at play: “legal cynicism.” The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust the government, the police, or the laws.

This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.

There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.

They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence…

his concept is one reason the Obama administration put an emphasis on pulling back the police’s use of military weapons. By looking like an occupying force, cops can worsen relations with their community — leading to distrust, which potentially leads to more crime and violence.

That’s why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it’s important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.

General

Here’s what police can get

Trump’s plan to give the policy easier access to military weapons explained 

Yes (Opposed to Trump Policy)

Obama’s limited restrictions on military gear were reasonable 

Police can already get military gear. Trump’s new policy ensures they can use it recklessly

Does military equipment lead police to be more violent? We did the research 

Trump endorses militarization of police 

A fethishization of law and order

The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Policy Forces (Book) 

Militarization and Policy Violence: The Case of the 1033 program (gated)

No (Supportive of Trump Policy)

Police unions push for tactical gear in wake of attacks

LA Sheriff says feds should restore military gear for police

Peacekeeping force; Effects of providing tactical equipment to local law enforcement 

Why Trump was right to reverse Obama’s policy

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