- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

In an effort to stop police departments from sometimes looking more like “occupying forces” than civil servants, President Obama on Monday took executive action to limit the military-style equipment available to law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Obama’s executive order, which he explained during a speech in Camden, New Jersey, came on the same day the president’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing” made its final recommendations. The group, formed after last summer’s violence and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, said police departments no longer should be able to use federal funds to buy certain kinds of armored vehicles, weaponized craft or firearms higher than .50 caliber, among other restrictions. It also said the administration should limit federal programs that funnel unused military gear to police departments.

Mr. Obama codified those recommendations with his executive order and cast the move as a key component of a broader effort to rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve.

“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 a part of the community, that’s protecting and serving them. It can intimidate and alienate local residents and send the wrong message,” the president said in Camden, a city that has seen dramatic reductions in crime after officials revamped the police department in 2013 to focus more on community engagement.

“We’re going to ensure departments have what they need but also that they have the training to use it,” the president added. “We’re doing these things because we’re listening to what law enforcement is telling us.”

The long-awaited report from Mr. Obama’s task force includes dozens other recommendations. The group, chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, said: officers need more training in a host of areas; police departments should equip officers with body cameras; officers should not be responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws; and that the federal government should review whether officers should face new limits on how many hours they can work in a given week.

On military weapons, police departments now will be prohibited from using federal funds or programs to acquire: armored vehicles that use a tracked system instead of wheels; any weaponized vehicle with weapons currently installed; firearms and ammunition higher than .50 caliber; grenade launchers; bayonets; and camouflage uniforms.

Departments still can buy those items using state, local or private funds. But they cannot rely on federal money, nor can they get the items through Defense Department surplus equipment programs.

Most of the banned items are rarely used by local police departments. The most recent example of police relying on some military equipment came last August in Ferguson, when authorities responded to violent protests with armored vehicles and riot gear.

The protests were fueled by the death of Michael Brown.

Police departments also must provide additional training for officers and explicitly justify why they need items such as manned aircraft; drones; wheeled armored vehicles; humvees; explosives and pyrotechnics; riot batons; riot helmets; riot shields and other items. Those items can be bought using federal money, provided the department makes a compelling case.

Critics say the new restrictions simply continue the demonization of police departments across the country and could actually put officers in greater danger as they attempt to maintain order in troubled communities.

“It’s easier for people to criticize law enforcement than to criticize the underlying problems happening in these communities that are extremely high crime areas.” said Atlanta attorney Lance LoRusso, a former police officer who specializes in law enforcement issues. “The law enforcement officers that are being vilified are the ones out there putting two-year-olds in body bags from drive-bys and then going out to solve these crimes.”

But others say the president’s action is a necessary first step.

“Through this ban, the president has taken a critical step towards rebuilding trust between police and the people they have pledged to serve,” said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Now, the federal government will no longer be permitted to supply police departments with military weapons and vehicles designed for the battlefield.”

For his part, Mr. Obama stressed that police reforms are not the only answer. He said lawmakers, community leaders and other stakeholders can take a number of other steps, including reforms to prison sentences for low-level drug offenders.

“If we politicians are simply ramping up long sentences of nonviolent drug crimes that end up devastating communities, we can’t then ask the police to be the ones to solve the problem where then are no able-bodied men in the community,” the president said.

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