NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Promising more military-style equipment for local police departments, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end Monday of limits instituted in the Obama era.
Speaking to a gathering of the National Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, this morning, Sessions said the move will help protect officers as they take on “terrorism, crime and disaster relief.”
“The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal,” Sessions said Monday.
President Barack Obama banned the federal government from providing some military equipment to local police in 2015, saying a less militarized police force would increase trust between police departments and their communities.
Adopted in response to highly publicized clashes between police and members of the public during the riots in Ferguson, Mo., the year before, the policy change stopped police from receiving equipment like armored trucks and grenade launchers from the military.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said in 2015.
But Sessions on Monday said Obama’s rules “went too far,” preventing police departments from getting equipment key to protecting their officers in difficult situations. While critics of police using military-style equipment say it gives police access to overpowered weapons and increases tensions, Sessions said the policy reversal will help departments get access to Kevlar vests and helmets that will save officers’ lives.
“We will not put superficial concerns over public safety,” Sessions said.
According to the most recent FBI statistics, 66 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2016, the first full year after Obama’s order went into effect, with most dying in ambushes or answering disturbance calls. Of the 66 who died in 2016, 50 were wearing body armor, which Sessions cast as a key reason for reversing the policy.
In 2014, the last full year before Obama’s order, 31 of the 51 officers who died in the line of duty were wearing body armor, according to FBI statistics.
The new executive order, which Trump signed in the afternoon Monday, is the latest in a string of steps the Trump Justice Department has taken to erase Obama-era policy initiatives. Sessions already repealed a policy former Attorney General Eric Holder put in place that gave greater discretion to prosecutors when charging certain low-level offenses, and in July rescinded Obama-era restrictions on civil asset forfeiture.
Civil rights groups reacted to the news with swift reproach, pointing to the still tenuous relationship between police and some of the communities they patrol.
“Today’s executive order erases the sensible limits placed by the Obama administration after Ferguson on the kinds of military equipment flowing from the federal government to local police and into our neighborhoods,” Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “Tensions between law enforcement and communities remain high, yet the president and the attorney general are giving the police military-grade weaponry instead of practical, effective ways to protect and serve everyone.”
A 2014 report by the ACLU found “almost no public oversight” in the distribution military-grade equipment to police.
This resulted in police departments receiving equipment like mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which are built to take on roadside bombs.
Departments put the federal equipment they received into use on relatively routine tasks, such as executing search warrants, the report found. Departments executed a search warrant 79 percent of the time they deployed their SWAT team, with only 7 percent of SWAT team calls going to active shooter, hostage or barricade situations.