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Limited by the Obama administration in an effort to ease racial tensions between officers and the communities they patrol, the federal 1033 program has been reinstated with police support.
President Trump issued an executive order on Monday rescinding Obama-era restrictions on the sale of certain types of military equipment to state and local police, arguing that the gear is “life saving” in nature.
Everything from surplus Kevlar vests and helmets to repurposed helicopters and vehicles, all decommissioned through the Defense Department’s 25-year-old 1033 program, will be made available, said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in prepared remarks at the Fraternal Order of Police’s biennial national conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
Limits on police procurement of militarized gear were approved in 2015 following state and local law enforcement’s harsh response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the pattern of that city’s use of deadly force in policing, outlined in the Justice Department’s consent decree with the city.
“Those restrictions went too far. We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions said. “All you need to do is turn on a TV right now to see that for Houstonians this isn’t about appearances, it’s about getting the job done and getting everyone to safety.”
Outside of disaster relief the attorney general stressed the importance of the equipment, $5.4 billion of which has been purchased over the program’s lifespan and that also includes semi-automatic rifles and bean bags with gas launchers, in crime and terrorism scenarios—as seen in San Bernardino and Orlando.
In passing the executive order restricting the sale of such weapons and armor, then-President Barack Obama expressed concern community policing was being undermined by officers intimidating residents into viewing them as an “occupying force.”
“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,” Janai Nelson, NAACP Legal Defense Fund associate director-counsel, said in a statement. “This action puts more fire power in the hands of police departments that remain largely untrained on matters of racial bias and endangers the public.”
Nelson pointed out Obama’s policy was only a partial ban, intended to prevent weapons like bayonets and grenade launchers from being used on the domestic population, and required training, data collection and reporting that will be eliminated—reducing oversight the LDF urged Congress to reimplement.
“The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too ‘militarized’ than they were about our safety,” Chuck Canterbury, the FOP’s national president, said in a statement.
Sessions assured law enforcement the Trump administration would “back the blue,” citing the reinstitution of the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, which both FOP and NSA support, as one example.
After listing off Nashville’s crime statistics, including a 76 percent increase in homicides between 2014 and 2015 and a 120 percent increase in fatal opioid overdoses in 2016, Sessions mentioned the recent death of Mayor Megan Barry’s 22-year-old son.
“These numbers are shocking—but they aren’t just numbers. They represent moms and dads, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends,” Sessions said. “I know your own mayor is mourning the loss of her son to this deadly plague. Many in this room have felt this loss firsthand as well.”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.