President Obama’s aim to stop civilian law enforcement from using federal funds for military equipment has evoked the ire of police organizations, who say the sweeping mandate will keep out of their hands items commonly used to quell riots, such as batons, helmets and shields.
Mr. Obama said his goal was to stop the militarization of police by giving them access to supplies like armored vehicles, high-powered weapons and camouflage uniforms. But those on the ground say his initiative will have a much wider effect, setting off local budget fights so squads can keep the gear that protects them in intense SWAT-like situations now that federal funding is no longer available.
The new restrictions were made public Monday, essentially notifying police departments nationwide that they will soon need to seek the approval of local governments to acquire defensive equipment.
“The types of equipment that is going to be restricted appears to include such purely defensive equipment such as helmets and shields,” said National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson. “And it doesn’t make any sense to us that police officers and law enforcement agencies would have to get permission to protect our officers.”
The heads of police organizations say they tried discussing their concerns about the White House plan to reform policing operations during a group breakfast with Vice President Joseph R. Biden last week, but to no avail.
“We met with the vice president and there was no hint that this was coming down the pipeline,” said Jonathan Fulton Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “I was surprised and, frankly, so were our members. Our concerns seem to fall on deaf ears.”
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Some law enforcement analysts say the new restrictions should be viewed as opportunity for police and sheriffs across the country to begin collaborating with one another and sharing their defensive equipment.
Additionally, those new restrictions will force the nation’s various law enforcement agencies to take a hard look at the changes that need to be made in order to improve police-community relations, said Brian Jackson, senior physical scientist for the Rand Safety and Justice Program.
“Going out in to the community particularly in a high tension situation involves risks,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s very safe — or safer inside riot gear or inside an armor vehicle. But on the other hand, that isn’t a force posture that invites the community into collaboratively working with the police.”
But in Baltimore, where schoolchildren were able to gain the upper hand over police by continuously berating them with rocks and liquor bottles last month before destroying large areas of the city in the Freddie Gray protests, the newly restricted equipment proved necessary defensive tools that they’re in short supply of.
As of last week, the department was still struggling to furnish its ill-equipped police force with equipment necessary to curtail another riot.
Defensive equipment, like riot gear and other military-style equipment, has helped to keep both officers and civilians safe from harm, said Sarah Guy, manager of legislative and media affairs for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
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“Law enforcement is an inherently dangerous job,” she said. “There are, unfortunately, occasions when equipment secured through this program are needed by law enforcement to protect lives, prevent the further escalation of violence, and ensure the safety of our communities.”
Equally worrisome is that the president’s latest police reform endeavor only further endangers the lives of law enforcement officers, who have been increasing targets of revenge and ambush attacks in recent years, said Mr. Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations.
The concerns and needs of police who put their lives in danger on a daily basis are being overlooked in favor of the boisterous demands of full-time agitators and protesters, Mr. Johnson said.
“I think the equipment is going to have to come from somewhere and, given the increasing number and severity of attacks on police across the country, this is the worst possible time to withhold defensive and protective equipment from American police officers,” he said.
• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at email@example.com.
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