Wednesday, May 20, 2015

No More Tanks For Local Police

Rhetorical questions are not really asked to provoke an answer. The purpose of a rhetorical question is to make us think. Questions like, why do local police departments need military gear to combat the citizenry in their jurisdictions? Or, were you as surprised as I was to see police in armed vehicles rolling through Ferguson, Missouri? Of course questions like this beg an answer. But there really is no comfortable explaination. 

In a brilliant move to defang venomous law enforcement agencies across America, President Obama has announced new efforts to demilitarize America’s police departments on Monday, telling an audience in Camden, New Jersey that heavily-armed police forces have left many local residents feeling alienated and intimidated.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force,” The President said. “We’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for those police departments.”

His announcement on the ban on the transfer of some types of military weapons to local police departments signals a continued draw down sparked by the militarized show of force inFerguson Missouri aalast summer that exacerbated withered trust between police and communities.

The ban is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to ease tensions between police and communities of color across the country, including Ferguson and Baltimore, theaters of unrest following the deaths of unarmed black men killed by police.

It includes the transfer of military weapons and gear, including armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and .50-caliber ammunition, the kind ubiquitous on foreign battlefields and increasingly in recent years, have landed in the hands of local police officers.

The new restrictions are being rolled out as a policing task force. A 116-page report will urge the country’s police agencies to “embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior— mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”

“We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing.”
Ronald L. Davis, DOJ policing office director

The ban is effective immediately.

Obama’s announcement on Monday afternoon in Camden, perennially one of the most dangerous cities in America, was no accident. Obama was in the city to tout it as a success story after wide policing reforms. Policing in the city has been transferred from city police to the Camden County Police Department, which has instituted a number of reform initiatives including strengthened community policing efforts.

“Communities like some poor communities in Camden or my hometown of Chicago, they’re part of America, too,” Obama said. “The kids who grow up here are America’s children. They’ve got hopes, they’ve got dreams, they’ve got potential. We’re not investing in them.”

The president riddled off a number of promising stats since the county’s takeover of the department. Violent crime in Camden is down 24%, murder is down 47% and open air drug markets have been cut by 65%, Obama said. The response time for 911 calls plummeted from an hour to five minutes. But perhaps the most significant gain has been growing trust between the police and local residents.

“I’ve come here today to do something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, that is to hold you up as a symbol of promise to the nation,” Obama told an audience of local residents, officials and law enforcement. “This city is onto something … I want to focus on the fact that other cities across America can make similar progress.”

The federal government’s practice of offering military-grade weapons and gear through grants and sale to local law enforcement agencies was ramped up following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Congress made the funnel from weapons depots to various cities in the name of fighting terror much wider. Through the Defense Department’s excess property program, also known as the 1033 Program, local police landed grenade launchers and high-caliber guns and ammunition. Since its inception in 1997, the 1033 Program transferred more than $4.3 billion in equipment to police forces, including nearly a half billion dollars in 2013 alone, according to reports.   


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