In the aftermath of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where police clad in riot gear responded to demonstrations with tear gas and armored vehicles, President Obama severely curtailed a decades-old program that gave state and local police access to surplus military gear.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said when he announced the policy change in 2015.
Now, just weeks after another round of protests highlighted America’s unresolved issues surrounding race, President Trump is expected to roll back Obama’s executive order. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to address the annual meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, on Monday, and according to USA Today he may outline the Trump administration’s changes to the program. As the AP notes, Trump’s promise to undo Obama’s restrictions on the program helped him win the police union’s endorsement.
A summary of the new plan obtained by USA Today said the Trump administration would restore “the full scope of a longstanding program for recycling surplus, lifesaving gear from the Department of Defense, along with restoring the full scope of grants used to purchase this type of equipment from other sources.”
Under the Obama administration, police could access certain surplus military equipment, like aircraft, mobile command units, wheeled vehicles, battering rams, and riot gear, pending federal approval. However, as of December, at least 100 grenade launchers, 1,600 bayonets, and 126 tanklike vehicles had been recalled.
Many police organizations say that the equipment is necessary to protect officers from terrorists or other active shooters, and armored vehicles were used during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
However, other experts in law-enforcement tactics and psychology say that the presence of military gear can needlessly inflame dangerous situations. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has already released a statement calling Trump’s reversal of the ban “exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible.”
“The president’s decision to make this change 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,” the organization said.