White House reverses Obama ban on police getting military equipment

The Trump administration is lifting a controversial ban on the transfer of surplus military equipment to state and local police departments, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE announced Monday.

President Trump will sign an executive order Monday reinstating the Pentagon program, Sessions said.

Former President Obama put a halt to the so-called 1033 program in 2015 after images of heavily armed police responding to protests in Ferguson, Mo., shocked the nation.

Obama's initiatives blocked the transfer of armored vehicles, grenade launchers, armed aircraft, bayonets and guns and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher.

“Those restrictions went too far,” Sessions said Monday. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. All you need to do is turn on a TV right now to see that for Houstonians this isn’t about appearances, it's about getting the job done and getting everyone to safety.”

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The ban was part of the previous administration’s efforts to re-establish trust between law enforcement and the communities they police, after a string of police-related deaths of black men in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere. At the time, Obama warned that such equipment cast the police in the role of an “occupying force,” deepening divisions with distrustful communities.

Trump has fashioned himself since his campaign as a “law and order” president who will restore an American way of life that the administration has warned is beset by worsening violence, including rising levels of violence against law enforcement.

“He is doing all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America,” Sessions promised the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) on Monday, arguing that the order will “make it easier to protect yourselves and your communities.”

“We back the blue,” he said forcefully, to applause.

The announcement comes as the role and conduct of police — particularly where it intersects with issues of race — continues to captivate national interest and spark fierce debate. Critics have accused state police officers in Charlottesville, Va., of standing by idly while a white nationalist fired into a crowd during violent clashes between demonstrators earlier this month.

Congress established the 1033 program almost three decades ago as part of the annual defense authorization bill as part of an effort to help local law enforcement pursue drug investigations.

But in 1997, the program was expanded to include all local law enforcement operations, including counterterrorism. More than $5 billion of military equipment has been transferred to police departments since then.

Some law enforcement groups — including the FOP, at whose convention Sessions made his announcement — have been pushing for the rollback of the Obama-era ban.

Supporters of the program say that the equipment was protective and defensive — and in addition to saving lives and reducing crime rates, saved money by repurposing equipment for which taxpayers had already paid. Sessions argued Monday that the program also provided first responder and rescue equipment “like what they’re using in Texas right now.” 

“The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too ‘militarized’ than they were about our safety,” FOP president Chuck Canterbury said in a Monday statement celebrating the new order.

Critics, meanwhile, argue that the program allowed police departments to stockpile military-grade equipment and increased the instances of violent encounters. Almost 150 law enforcement agencies were suspended over the six-year period prior to the ban for losing track of equipment, according to ABC News and Fusion.