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Police organizations want a ban on such equipment repealed for officer safety, but killings of police are actually at an all-time low.
The decision came after President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden discussed the issue with representatives of several national police organizations, some of whom have been critical of the president for what they see as inaction in light of the recent shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, attended the July 11 meeting and helped lobby for the review, pointing to the crowd-control benefits of military equipment.
Three days earlier, Johnson had lashed out at Obama on Fox News,claiming that White House actions, including pushes for police reform by the U.S. Department of Justice and the president’s “refusal to condemn movements like Black Lives Matter” had “led directly to the climate that ... made Dallas possible.”
"It's a war on cops, and the Obama administration is the Neville Chamberlain of this war," Johnson told Fox, insisting that police are targets of an escalating campaign of violence inspired by the anti-police-brutality movement.
The ban on police departments using military-grade weapons was instituted last year after public outcry over the heavy police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police-involved killing of Michael Brown. It forced local law enforcement agencies nationwide to return 126 tracked armored vehicles and 138 grenade launchers. The ban did not extend to M-16 assault rifles, Humvees, helicopters, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), and many other military items.
But some former police argue that returning this equipment to departments will not improve officer safety.
“More guns, more military weapons, convey to residents that police are fearful and that they are not able to ensure the safety of residents,” says Tom Nolan, a professor of criminology at Merrimack College and a former Boston police officer. “The visible display of militarized weapons, particularly in communities of color, drives a schism between the police and the community.”
Nolan points to the aggressive police response to protests following the police-shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, when more than 100 people were arrested over a weekend of major protests.
“What we saw in Baton Rouge last week, the police just going in there and beating the crap out of people with the ninja suits on, I thought we had moved beyond that,” says Nolan. “But apparently they didn’t get that memo, and it proved to be a disastrous result.”
In spite of the renewed debate over police militarization, intentional killings of police officers have dipped to a historic low during the Obama administration. In fact, the average annual number of such police fatalities has dropped under every administration since Ronald Reagan’s, according to The Washington Post.
Citing these numbers and the relatively limited nature of the equipment ban itself, Peter Kraska, a professor of criminology at Eastern Kentucky University, argues that the demand for military weapons is mostly a symbolic assertion of power in today’s resurgent era of “law-and-order” politics.
“With two horrific incidents of violence against police, symbolically they now [want] military gear to protect themselves,” Kraska says. “And since the Obama administration symbolically took away some of that, now they are making him give it back.”
George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, where this article was originally published.