CAMDEN, N.J. -- The Obama administration announced Monday it will ban federal transfers of certain types of military-style gear to local police departments, as the president seeks to respond to a spate of incidents that has frayed trust in communities across the country.
"We’ve seen how militarized gear sometimes gives people a feeling like they are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them," Obama said during remarks in Camden, N.J. "Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments."
The nation's largest police union denounced the president's move, saying he has overstated the problem.
“The issue of militarization has been really kind of exaggerated almost to the point that I don’t recognize it at times,” said James Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. “The vast majority of the equipment that civilian law enforcement gets from the military is administrative stuff or defensive in nature.”
The ban on items will take effect immediately, White House officials said, while the restrictions on other gear will be phased in so that local law enforcement agencies can be briefed about the new requirements.
"The idea is to make sure we strike the right balance of providing equipment that is appropriate and important, while at the same time put standards in place that give a clear reason for the transfer of that equipment, with clear training and safety provisions in place," Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of domestic policy, told reporters in a conference call on Sunday.
The announcement came as Obama traveled here to highlight his administration's strategy to help reform local police departments, including efforts to increase the numbers of officers on patrol and the use of body cameras. The White House has said the administration will spend about $75 million over the next three years to buy about 50,000 body cameras that will be worn by police.
The administration has been seeking to respond to a series of incidents, including the shooting by police of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, that have sparked protests among citizens.
As he has over the past months, Obama sought to tread a careful line between calling on police officers and members of the community to do more to improve the relationship between them. The president emphasized that pervasive hopelessness in the inner city is driven in large part by a lack of educational and economic opportunities.
He also praised the police, saying "the overwhelming number of police officers are good, fair, honest and care deeply about their community, putting their lives on the line every day." He said the police cannot be expected to provide the answers to some of the intractable social issues that have roots in divisive issues of race and class.
The appearance of heavily armored vehicles and police clad in military-grade body armor to quell the unrest in Ferguson led to widespread concerns that the federal program providing that gear, begun with the best intentions, had run amok.
One of the ways police departments have armed themselves in recent years is through the Defense Department's excess property program, known as the 1033 Program. That program has transferred more than $4.3 billion in equipment since its inception in 1997. In 2013 alone it gave nearly half a billion dollars worth of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, according to the program's Web site.
Some police chiefs have stressed that much of the equipment that has been being made available by the federal program is radio and dispatch equipment that provides cash-strapped departments with valuable updates. Others, thought, have decried the influx of military equipment into local departments that has come in recent years where budgets for officers on the ground have been cut.
“I understand what the president is trying to do, and I think he recognizes that law enforcement is a dangerous job,” said Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think he’s trying to strike a balance … trying to find that happy balance between being able to provide the equipment that we need and also trying to provide some accountability.”
The announcement of a ban on portions of the program Monday was something of a surprise.
Last December, new White House initiatives stopped well short of banning the transfer of hulking military vehicles that were designed to withstand blasts from land mines in Iraq and Afghanistan and that prompted a public outcry when they appeared on the streets of Ferguson.
A senior administration official at that time said the White House didn’t have the authority to stop the transfers. “Those are programs that Congress directed the agencies to implement,” the official said.
But the working group report suggested that there was “substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items."
The announcement was met with praise from lawmakers in Missouri, as well as from elected officials who had introduced bills in recent months that would have installed similar restrictions.
On the campaign trail, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has a bill pending in Congress to reform the types of militarized weapons for local police, endorsed the president's actions.
"I see no reason why a 20-ton mine resistant ambush protection vehicle should ever roll down any city in our country," Paul said during an appearance in Philadelphia, not far from Camden. "The president can change some of this through executive order, and I commend him for doing so."
Paul added: "There is no reason that the police force should be the same as the army."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called the new restrictions “another step in the direction of needed change to better protect both police officers and the communities those officers serve." Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) thanked Obama for instituting the new restrictions on which military equipment local police forces could obtain.
“I witnessed first-hand, high-powered sniper rifles with night scopes being pointed at my constituents who were peacefully exercising their constitutional rights,” said Clay, whose district includes Ferguson. “That kind of police militarization is harmful, and it deepens the already wide gulf of mistrust that exists between communities of color and some local law enforcement agencies.”
Meanwhile, anti-police brutality and law enforcement reform groups were more measured, praising the move by the Obama administration but painting it as a small step in what they believe will be a long process to reform American policing.
“We know that reforming 1033 or putting limits on military equipment is not going to be enough,” said Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, one of the groups born in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. “Any reform done to policing must be systemic and transformative," said Barry, who has played a role in organizing the Black Lives Matter protests that have occurred nationwide since Michael Brown was killed. "Militarized police culture, surveillance technologies and equipment must all be looked at if we are to see an end of police militarization in our communities.”
Obama's visit Monday to Camden, one of New Jersey's poorest cities, came as he seeks to ramp up federal funding for community policing initiatives.
Camden has long been among New Jersey's most crime-ridden cities, but reforms over the past two years have led to falling crime statistics and an increased number of officers in the community. The president toured Camden's county police headquarters and tactical operations center, and he spoke with youth and officers before delivering remarks at a community center.
"I came here to do what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: Hold you up as a symbol of promise for the nation," Obama told a crowd of nearly 300. He noted that crime had fallen but emphasized that the city still has a lot of work to do. Camden remains one of the most crime-ridden cities in New Jersey.
White House aides said the reforms in Camden include its designation as a federal "Promise Zone," which allows the city to receive federal grants to help improve educational opportunities and public health and reduce crime. The city last month joined the administration's "My Brother's Keeper" program, which Obama started to try to concentrate on providing opportunities for young African American men and boys.
The Obama administration also has sought additional funding to increase body cameras for local departments and this month announced a $20 million pilot program.
"We're hopeful we will have a constructive conversation with Congress to up the ante for departments to buy cameras," Muñoz said.
In the coming weeks, several members of Obama's Cabinet also will travel across the country to tout the community policing initiatives.