Who will forget the images that came out of Ferguson, Missouri, last summer? They are indelible: officers in military fatigues pointing rifles at citizens, armored vehicles patrolling an American community.
Images like these led to public outcry: Why did police look like they were heading off to war? Did the aggressive response to the protests surrounding the death of Michael Brown only precipitate more violence in the community?
On Monday, President Obama announced a new policy banning the federal government from providing some of these military-style armaments to local police departments, in line with recommendations from the White House's working group on police equipment.
"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," Obama said in Camden, New Jersey, announcing the new policies. "It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."
For decades, the Pentagon has made military-style equipment—armored trucks, bayonets, assault rifles, etc.—available to local police departments. According to The New York Times, just since Obama was elected, "police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft."
Much of these supplies will no longer be allowed to flow from the Pentagon to local police departments. Banned outright are armored vehicles that ride on tank-tracks, as well as bayonets, grenade launchers, and large-caliber firearms. Other military-style equipment will be allowed, but more tightly controlled. These items include armored vehicles and riot gear. "We're going to ensure that departments have what they need, but also that they have the training to use it," Obama said.
These equipment recommendations come in tandem with final recommendations from the president's task force on 21st Century Policing. Many of the task force's recommendations center on changing the culture of mistrust that exists between police and African-American communities. They call for an increased focus on community policing, in which officers engage with citizens in a high-touch, friendly way. Obama highlighted Camden as a place where police are utilizing those tactics.
Obama said that Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson "will tell you his officers read to young children in the communities not just to build positive relationships, but because it's in the interest of the community to make sure these kids can read. They can stay in school, and graduate ready for college and careers, and become productive members of society."
The greatest measure of success, Obama said, will be if outcomes for inner-city kids improve. "Ultimately that's how we're going to measure change," he said. "Rising prospects for our kids, rising prospects for the neighborhood. Do our children feel safe on the streets?"
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