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Trump to restore program sending surplus military weapons, equipment to police

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government is lifting restrictions on transferring surplus military equipment to police departments. (Video: Reuters)

President Donald Trump plans to resume the transfer of surplus weapons, vehicles and other equipment from the nation’s military to its state and local law enforcement agencies, reviving a program that was sharply curtailed by President Barack Obama two years ago. The program launched in 1990 but was greatly limited after public reaction to images of heavily militarized police in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and other sites of civil unrest.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the move Monday morning at the Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, and said the president would do so by executive order. The police union had lobbied for the restoration of the program, and Trump said he would do so during his campaign.

The restrictions on distributing military surplus to police “went too far,” Sessions told the FOP on Monday. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety…The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal. And we will save taxpayer money in the meantime.”

Sessions concluded by telling the police convention, “We have your back and you have our thanks.”

The decision to restore the flow of military weaponry to civilian law enforcement was the latest move by the Trump administration both to stake out a hard-line stance on law and order as they view it, and to undo actions by the Obama administration which were unpopular in some quarters of law enforcement.

The FOP leadership applauded the rescinding of Obama’s restrictions on the program. “Protective equipment is essential to officer and public safety in a wide variety of life and death situations,” its president, Chuck Canterbury, told The Post. “This decisive action by President Trump fulfills a promise he made to the FOP during the campaign, and police officers nationwide are grateful to him. … The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too ‘militarized’ than they were about our safety,” Canterbury said.

The National Sheriffs’ Association also declared their support for Trump’s action. “The equipment sheriffs receive through this program,” association president Harold Eavenson said in a statement, “includes equipment they could not otherwise afford including additional bullet-proof vests and Kevlar helmets, upgraded safety equipment, as well as larger equipment such as helicopters and robotics. By reinstating this program the President will provide more resources to local law enforcement to keep their communities safe without any additional cost to the tax-payer.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted his disapproval of the move shortly after it was announced, and then said he would be reintroducing his “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act,” which prohibits transfer of equipment deemed “offensive” such as weapons, but not equipment used for “defensive” purposes, such as helmets or body armor.

“The militarization of our law enforcement,” Rand said in a statement, “is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work with local authorities to reduce or solve crime, but it is another for them to subsidize militarization…Any order that comes today still needs to be funded, and I will bring this issue to the Senate floor.”

Civil rights activists were upset about the restoration of the weapons program. Vanita Gupta, the former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the Obama administration, said in a statement, “These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone. It is especially troubling that some of this equipment can now again be used in schools where our children are sent to learn. … Most in law enforcement understand why these guidelines and this approach to policing are critical to rebuilding trust with the communities they serve, especially communities of color, and also to reducing the risk of violence in our communities.”

Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the move was “both exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible for the Administration to lift the ban on the transfer of certain surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement organizations.”

Nelson said in a statement that Trump’s decision “in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville and against a backdrop of frayed relations between police and communities of color further reflects this administration’s now open effort to escalate racial tensions in our country. This action puts more fire power in the hands of police departments that remain largely untrained on matters of racial bias and endangers the public. Inviting the use of military weaponry against our domestic population is nothing short of recasting the public as an enemy.”

The transfer of extra weapons and gear from the Defense Department occurred through the “1033 Program” created by Congress in 1990, originally for use in drug enforcement by federal and state law enforcement. But in 1997, the program was expanded to include all law enforcement agencies, though with a preference for those with anti-drug or anti-terrorism programs. The White House said the 1033 program had resulted in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion worth of surplus military equipment to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, to include armored vehicles, riot gear, rifles, ammunition and computers that had been scrapped by the Defense Department. Police paid nothing more than transportation or shipping costs to get the equipment.

But during the civil unrest that erupted after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, many were troubled by scenes of oversized military vehicles and heavily armored police pointing high-powered rifles at protesters. The 1033 program received new scrutiny as public records showed how much military surplus had been distributed to local police nationally. In January 2015, Obama created a working group to make recommendations to reform the program, which called for creating lists of “prohibited equipment” that could no longer be distributed to police and “controlled equipment” that could only be provided for a demonstrated need.

Obama administration bans some military-style assault gear from local police departments

The “prohibited equipment” included tracked armored vehicles and weaponized vehicles of any kind, rifles and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, and grenade launchers. The “controlled equipment” included any specialized firearms, manned and unmanned aircraft, explosives and riot gear. In 2016, the government began recalling previously issued surplus gear that had been placed on the prohibited equipment list.

A background paper prepared by the Justice Department cites two articles published this month in the American Economic Journal that found that distributing military weapons and equipment to civilian law enforcement had “generally positive effects” and “reduced street-level crime.” One of the studies calculated that for every $5,800 in military aid given to law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, society saved about $112,000 in costs due to prevented crime.

The Justice Department also notes that armored vehicles and other military gear were used to protect the officers who killed the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and that a military-style helmet saved the life of an officer responding to the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando.

In announcing the reduction of the program, Obama said in 2015 that “militarized gear sometimes gives people a feeling like [police] are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them. Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments.”

The Justice Department background paper said Trump’s decision to fully restore the program “represents a policy shift toward ensuring officers have the tools they need to reduce crime and keep their communities safe. It sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and makes officers more effective.”

This story has been updated with quotes from the Attorney General and those reacting to the decision.