Jeff Sessions wants you to believe that the Obama administration made it impossible for police departments to obtain military gear from the federal government—and that Donald Trump, by signing an executive order that reverses that restrictive policy, is triumphantly turning that faucet back on. As Sessions said in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police on Monday, “The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job.”
What Sessions did not say is that, with a few small exceptions, law enforcement agencies could already acquire whatever military equipment they want, so long as they committed to certain best practices, maintained consistent policies about when the equipment could be deployed, and could demonstrate that the officers who would be using the equipment were properly trained. The fact that the Trump administration wants to get rid of these conditions tells you everything you need to know about what’s driving the change in policy. This is not about making communities safer. It’s about handing America’s police departments the kind of unshackled power and authority that Trump and Sessions think they intrinsically deserve.
The Obama policy went into effect in October 2015, about a year after demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, provoked local authorities to send terrifying military vehicles and police officers dressed in riot gear to confront Black Lives Matter protesters. Obama’s executive order set forth two categories of military equipment: “prohibited equipment” and “controlled equipment.” The first category, which law enforcement agencies could no longer procure through federal grants under any circumstances, was relatively small, and included such weapons of war as bayonets, grenade launchers, and tanklike armored vehicles. The second category was broader, and included less extreme items like riot helmets, battering rams, Humvees, drones, and helicopters.
Despite what Sessions suggested at his speech on Monday, Obama’s policy in no way prohibited law enforcement agencies from obtaining items in this second category. It merely asked them to provide assurances that the gear would be used safely and appropriately.
“The prohibited list is a tiny list of equipment that, honestly, when we talked to law enforcement agencies no one could reasonably defend the use of that equipment. Truly no one,” said Roy L. Austin, a former Justice Department official who worked with Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.* “What we ran into were sheriffs who said we had no right to monitor what they get or how they use what they get, even though they all acknowledged the fact that this was taxpayer-funded equipment. All we were asking for was this: Don’t just acquire the equipment and use it willy-nilly. If you’re going to get it, have a reason.”
Ed Chung, a former Justice Department official who headed the working group that developed the Obama administration’s policy, explained that the training rules and other protocols—which you can read starting on Page 17 of this document—were “about good governance: making sure that people who received equipment through federal programs had common-sense policies in place prior to acquiring them.” Chung, who is now vice president for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, added, “These weren’t crazy requirements.”
For Trump and Sessions, a society that does not worship its police officers and trust them blindly is a society hurtling toward dysfunction and depravity. It is a worldview that aligns the administration with the most radical voices in the law enforcement community while alienating the many decorated and ambitious police executives who have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Trump that force alone will not solve the crises of legitimacy that police departments around the country are confronting.
“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions said during his speech to the FOP. The implication was that the Obama administration insisted on reining in the use of military vehicles and weapons by state and local police because they looked scary. That was indeed part of it. But worrying about how it looks when a tank drives down an American street is not superficial. What’s superficial is thinking you can achieve “law and order” by making cops the most powerful people in our cities and telling them they can do whatever they want.
*Correction, Aug. 29, 2017: This post originally misstated that Austin served on Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He worked with the task force but did not formally serve on it.