But the supply programs lacked consistent standards for reporting, training and accountability, according to a White House review released this week.
The federal government helped state and local police obtain about 460,000 military-grade items to date, including Humvees, assault rifles and night-vision goggles. About 17 percent of the transactions happened last year.
According to the White House report, a lack of oversight with such programs can “facilitate excessive uses of force and serve as a highly visible barrier between police and the communities they serve.”
The review found that agencies lacked standardized training programs for avoiding civil-rights and civil-liberties violations, or even how to use the equipment safely.
Overall, the federal government has helped police agencies obtain about 1.9 million pieces of equipment, four percent of which consisted of costly military-grade items. The other supplies included office furniture, tool kits, lockers and commercial vehicles.
In response to the findings, the White House on Monday called for greater federal coordination and oversight of the equipment programs, including standardized training. President Obama directed federal agencies to develop specific recommendations by April, in coordination with police and civil rights groups.
Additionally, the president promised to establish a task force that would help law-enforcement agencies modernize their policing policies. The group, led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, will examine how to “promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” according to a White House announcement on Monday.
Task forces and commissions tend to work slowly, often frustrating advocates for change. Obama acknowledged as much on Monday, but he told reporters that this time will be an exception because “the president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure that this time is different,” according to a Washington Post report.
Obama also proposed spending $263 million over the next three years on additional training and other measures to help law-enforcement agencies build trust within their communities.
Of that money, $75 million would assist police in purchasing 50,000 body cameras. It remains to be seen whether the government would exercise adequate oversight of that equipment.