On Monday, Trump issued an executive order undoing restrictions placed on the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.
The restrictions had been put in place by President Obama in 2015 following criticism of police tactics in response to protests in Ferguson. Obama said at the time, “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force.”
Concern about the growing alienation between communities and police drove Obama’s decision, but many of Trump’s policy choices seem designed to disintegrate the increasingly tenuous relationships between these two segments of society. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the lifting of restrictions he said, “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.” It is hard to escape the implication that police accountability is the “superficial concern” that must be cast aside in order for law and order to be enforced.
The 1033 Program that permits the transfer of surplus military equipment to police forces was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, building on a 1990 program that had restricted use to “agencies in counter-drug activities.” The 1033 Program is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency whose records are not publicly available. A GAO study this year found problems with oversight, including a transfer of $1.2 million of military equipment to investigators pretending to be a police department.
Over the last 10 years, as the war in Iraq wound down, the availability of military surplus led to a dramatic expansion of transfers of equipment completely out of proportion to law enforcement needs. Newsweek reported in 2014:
– Police in Watertown, Connecticut, (population 22,514) recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle (sticker price: $733,000), designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, for $2,800. There has never been a landmine reported in Watertown, Connecticut.
– Police in small towns in Michigan and Indiana have used the 1033 Program to acquire “MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles,” the South Bend Tribune reported.
– And police in Bloomington, Georgia, (population: 2,713) acquired four grenade launchers through the program, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Attorney General Sessions announced the decision to a group of police officers, saying, “The executive order…send[s] a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal.” With crime rates at an all-time low, it difficult to know what “new normal” of lawlessness is being addressed here. Certainly we should question the need for police departments to deploy MRAP’s and rocket launchers to combat property crimes and drug addiction.
Trump’s decision to lift restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to police, along with his pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, allowing police to expand their use of property seizures and his war on migrants, all point to an effort to remove all accountability for violations of civil liberties by law enforcement. Janai Nelson of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund called the move, “exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible,” and noted “[i]nviting the use of military weaponry against our domestic population is nothing short of recasting the public as an enemy.”
Trump is inventing a war at home, and picking sides. It is political posturing of the worst kind and can only deepen the rift growing in civil society.