WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Monday rolled back Obama-era restrictions on the type of surplus military weapons and equipment that the Department of Defense can transfer to law enforcement agencies.
The executive order, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and immediately taking effect, ends restrictions the Obama administration put in place in May 2015 in the wake of the August 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Police responded to the protests, which were sparked by the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, with controversial means. Some accused the police’s use of heavy military equipment — including armored vehicles, riot gear and assault rifles — for inciting violence.
Sessions said Monday before the 63rd biennial meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville that the military equipment transfers can save the lives of law enforcement professionals.
“One sheriff told me earlier this year about how, due to the prior administration’s restrictions, the federal government made his department return an armored vehicle that can change the dynamics of an active shooter situation,” Sessions said.
He noted that armored vehicles and other military equipment were used to protect the officers who killed the perpetrators of the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and that a military-style helmet saved the life of a police officer responding to the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Sessions also referenced two studies by the American Economic Association that found surplus military-grade equipment acquired by local police departments acts as an effective deterrence, reduces street-level crime and is cost-effective.
The Obama policy, which came by way of executive order after an interagency review process, ceased the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, and large-caliber weapons and ammunition from the military to police.
It designated other items — including aircraft, wheeled tactical vehicles, mobile command-and-control units, battering rams and riot gear — as controlled, meaning law enforcement would have to meet national standards and undergo training before receiving the equipment.
“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 when announcing the 2015 order. “Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Since the program was created by Congress in 1990, more than $6 billion in surplus military equipment has been distributed to more than 8,600 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The program, now called the 1033 Program, is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).
The program has been criticized for having poor oversight and broken internal control processes.
A July 2017 Government Accountability Office report found that investigators were able to forge law enforcement credentials, create a website and make counterfeit IDs to apply for the program. After being accepted into the program, their requests for items — including scopes, night vision goggles, fake pipe bombs and training rifles — were fulfilled within one week. Representatives from the fake law enforcement agency picked up the $1.2 million worth of equipment from three DLA warehouses without any trouble, and at two of the locations did not have their IDs checked.
Following the report, the director of DLA Disposition Services, Mike Cannon, told Congress that the agency would remedy the issues and temporarily suspend all equipment transfers until law enforcement agencies comply with new registration measures.
During his Monday speech, Sessions also praised law enforcement, mourned the loss of law enforcement lives, expressed support for civil forfeiture and stressed the need to return to a time of respect for law and order.