Obama's Cautious First Step Toward Demilitarizing the Police

The president wants more money for local law enforcement and a limitation on the use of military equipment, but not a complete ban.

Charlie Riedel/AP

Amid high tensions between urban communities and the officers that police them, the Obama administration on Monday made its first move toward limiting the use of heavy military equipment by local law enforcement agencies.

Releasing the findings of a three-month review of federal programs, the White House called for police officers to receive more training before using military equipment acquired from the government, and it asked Congress for $263 million for body cameras, training, and other resources for local law enforcement. The 19-page report also recommended that civilian officials be required to sign off on requests by police departments for military gear.

The recommendations appeared to be aimed at finding a middle ground: The White House is not calling for a halt to the transfers of military equipment to local law enforcement, but it wants more restrictions and oversight of the program.

"Federal equipment programs provide for the reuse of valuable equipment and have contributed to the protection of the public and to reduced operational risk to peace officers, who put their lives on the line every day to keep the American people safe," the report said. "At the same time, when police lack adequate training, make poor operational choices, or improperly use equipment, these programs can facilitate excessive uses of force and serve as a highly visible barrier between police and the communities they secure."

The White House's announcement came as part of the broader response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and other U.S. cities following a grand jury's decision last week not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. President Obama met separately on Monday with civil rights leaders and with local elected officials and law enforcement leaders to discuss the aftermath of the protests and ways to rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve.

An aggressive police response to the first wave of demonstrations in Ferguson over the summer—including the use of armored vehicles, tear gas, and other battlefield equipment—prompted fresh scrutiny of federal programs that allow local police departments to acquire new and used military equipment. The program that got the most attention was the Defense Department's so-called 1033 initiative, which transferred excess military equipment to localities after Congress created it two decades ago to help cities combat drug gangs. A bipartisan House proposal would have overhauled the program, prohibiting the transfer of many military-style weapons and boosting requirements for regular inventories of the equipment.

While Obama ordered a review of the transfer programs, the Pentagon and other security agencies defended their use more recently in helping major cities to prepare for possible terrorist attacks. The White House report noted that 96 percent of the equipment transferred under the 1033 program was "fairly routine" items like office furniture, computers, basic firearms, and protective gear. But that left 78,000 pieces of high-powered weapons and tactical vehicles sent to local departments in the last year and nearly half a million pieces since Obama took office. The report cited a lack of coordination among federal departments and a lack of consistent standards for how the equipment should be used.

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri praised the other part of Obama's proposal—the expansion of body cameras—as "exactly the right move." Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia, a Democrat who called for changing the 1033 program, also applauded the White House recommendations while noting that his legislation would go even further to sever the link between the military and the police.