President Barack Obama announced new reforms to the kinds of military-style equipment available to state and local police departments Monday, in a reversal from the administration’s previous stance to continue such programs.
The transfer of tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and large-caliber firearms from the federal government to local agencies is now prohibited. Other equipment, such as riot gear and specialized firearms and ammunition, will only be disbursed to agencies that meet specific requirements or go through additional training.
The new controls come as a result of recommendations, also released Monday, by an interagency working group, formed by Obama through an executive order earlier this year.
The police response to nationwide protesters decrying a series of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men served to highlight the problem, as police officers in cities like Ferguson, Missouri — the site of the shooting death of 19-year-old Michael Brown — rolled through streets in armored tanks and full riot gear.
White House officials had previously defended the use of such transfer programs, noting their utility in scenarios like the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013.
But speaking in Camden, New Jersey, which has long had high rates of crime and poverty, Obama said that the new restrictions on military equipment would ease tensions and help officers rebuild trust with the residents they serve.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said, after meeting with both young people and law enforcement in Camden. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message."
“We’re doing these things because we’re listening to what law enforcement is telling us,” Obama added. “They care deeply about their community, they put their lives on the line every day and we should do everything in our power to make sure they are safe and help them do their job the best we can.”
Obama held up Camden as an example of a community that had turned its relationship with the police around. He praised the efforts of the department, which he said had implemented various policies to better serve and work with the community. He also noted the $163 million in Department of Justice grants that would be available to help police departments reform their practices, in line with the working group’s recommendations. And he touted other programs meant to expand opportunities for minority communities, including his administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, specifically geared at young men of color.
Obama also said changes to policing were only the beginning in addressing the crises that the unrest in Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore had highlighted.
“A lot of the issues that have been raised here, and in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and New York, goes beyond policing. We can't ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about,” he said. “If we as a society don’t do more to expand opportunity to everybody who’s willing to work for it, then we’ll end up seeing conflicts between law enforcement and residents. If we as a society aren’t willing to deal honestly with issue of race, then we can't just expect police departments to solve these problems.”