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Trump’s plan to give police easier access to military weapons, explained

German Lopez
Protestors confront a convoy of Missouri National Guard humvees as they drive near the Ferguson police station on November 25, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Getty Images

The Trump administration is taking steps to ensure more police officers can equip themselves with camouflage uniforms, bayonets, and even grenade launchers.

On Monday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing rules by former President Barack Obama that restricted police departments' ability to obtain surplus military weapons. The Obama-era restrictions curtailed programs, such as the 1033 program, that effectively let police obtain excess military gear from federal agencies for free or through federal dollars.

Obama's 2015 rules were a response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, in which cops used military-grade equipment to counter the protests — a move that many critics at the time considered excessive, given that the demonstrations were mostly peaceful.

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The Trump administration has argued that military equipment is necessary for police to do their jobs in a safe manner. "I am here to announce that President Trump is issuing an executive order that will make it easier to protect yourselves and your communities," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a conference by the National Fraternal Order of Police on Monday.

The Obama administration's restrictions weren't about making the police's job more difficult. They were about changing the mentality and reputation that still surrounds law enforcement — and, ultimately, pulling back the "us versus them" view that can make policing far too aggressive, contributing to distrust toward law enforcement in many US communities.

Obama worried that letting cops easily wield sniper rifles, wear camouflaged heavy armor, and drive in armored vehicles that resemble tanks contributed to that "us versus them" mentality. But Trump apparently isn't so worried, driven by a firm belief — one that isn't shared by many criminologists — that very aggressive policing is necessary to stop crime in America.

What Obama's restrictions did

On a technical level, the Obama administration changes restricted and, in some cases, banned the use of certain kinds of military equipment. The gear, from special guns to grenade launchers to armored vehicles, was available through a variety of programs by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security — originally to help combat drug cartels and terrorists, but now widely used in standard police operations, even protest responses.

Here is a list of the banned gear (see graphic here).

And here is a list of the restricted equipment, which under the Obama rules had more requirements — training, data collection, and approval from local officials — for police to obtain (see graphic here).

Even with the restrictions in place, it remained fairly easy for police to obtain the weapons. Earlier this year, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced it had obtained roughly $1.2 million in military equipment by setting up a sham police department with a bogus website and physical address. As Zina Merritt of the GAO explained to the Marshall Project and Wired, "They never did any verification, like visit our 'location,' and most of it was by email. It was like getting stuff off of Ebay."

On a more practical level, the Obama rules weren't just about which gear is available and how it's obtained. As Radley Balko, a journalist and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, explained on Twitter, the restrictions were about shifting how both the police and public perceive the role of law enforcement.

"The Obama … restrictions were about telling both cops and the communities they serve: The police are public servants, not an occupying force," Balko wrote. "They're there to protect and serve, not to harass and intimidate. It was a modest attempt to address the 'us vs. them' mentality."

Indeed, the Obama administration suggested as much through a 2015 report put out by its task force on policing. It emphasized "minimizing the appearance of a military operation" and "avoiding provocative tactics." Task force member Susan Rahr noted:

In 2012, we began asking the question, "Why are we training police officers like soldiers?" Although police officers wear uniforms and carry weapons, the similarity ends there. The missions and rules of engagement are completely different. The soldier's mission is that of a warrior: to conquer. The rules of engagement are decided before the battle. The police officer's mission is that of a guardian: to protect. The rules of engagement evolve as the incident unfolds. Soldiers must follow orders. Police officers must make independent decisions. Soldiers come into communities as an outside, occupying force. Guardians are members of the community, protecting from within.

The task force wanted the Obama administration to draw a clear line between police's "guardian" role and the military's "warrior" role. The administration figured that one way to do that was by making it more difficult for police to obtain weapons that are seen by the public as tools of warriors instead of guardians.

Why Trump and Sessions are doing this

The Trump administration obviously disagrees, focusing on arguments that not letting the police obtain military weapons makes their jobs more dangerous. They claim that police need the gear to combat criminals, such as drug cartels and terrorists, who can be just as heavily armed.

But this is also part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to unleash the policethrough a 1980s-style "tough on crime" framework.

Earlier this year, for example, Sessions's Justice Department pulled back investigations of local and state police forces. The Obama administration aggressively pursued the investigations, finding that police departments often discriminated against minority residents and using the findings to push for reforms. Without these investigations, the federal government isn't going to have as much of a role in ending police misconduct and discriminatory practices.

But Sessions, who admitted in February that he hadn't even read the full reports from previous federal investigations into Chicago and Ferguson police, argued that the investigations created a chilling effect among police: By shining a bright spotlight on law enforcement, the investigations led cops to fear that they might be caught inadvertently doing something wrong — and such concerns led police to pull back from proactive tactics and other "tough on crime" policies that, from Sessions's perspective, keep communities safe.

To Sessions, then, the primary worry isn't whether police are breaking the law; it's whether police are doing everything in their power to stop lawbreaking from others.

In a speech given on the 99th day of the Trump administration, Sessions said as much: "I have directed our department to develop strategies to support the thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country that seek to prevent crime and protect the public. And I have made clear that this Department of Justice will not sign consent decrees that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of criminals and stopping lawful police procedures that have been proven to reduce crime."

Trump, for his part, has endorsed this view. He ran on a 1980s-style "tough on crime" campaign in which he said police should be far more aggressive than they are today, particularly by using the controversial "stop and frisk" strategy that a court struck down in New York City because it was used to target minority Americans.

Sometimes the Trump administration's rhetoric defies reality. In April, Sessions's Justice Department argued that "New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance." This has been a common criticism among the right after a court ended the unconstitutional implementation of stop and frisk.

Yet following the end of stop and frisk, New York City's crime rate fell to historic lows — suggesting that such aggressive tactics aren't needed to keep communities safe.

Still, the overwhelming concern for the Trump administration is restraining police in any way — which, in their view, will lead to more crime.

Police need to repair community relations to do their jobs

Criminal justice experts argue, however, that police actually need to rebuild trust from their communities if they want to effectively combat crime.

There's a longstanding criminological concept at play: "legal cynicism." The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don't trust the government, the police, or the laws.

This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.

There's research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.

They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.

But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that "the spring and summer that followed Jude's story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study."

That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn't definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn't trust police to stop crime and violence.

"An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement," the researchers write, but "they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe."

This concept is one reason the Obama administration put an emphasis on pulling back the police's use of military weapons. By looking like an occupying force, cops can worsen relations with their community — leading to distrust, which potentially leads to more crime and violence.

That's why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it's important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.

"This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong," David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me last year. "What those folks simply don't understand is that when communities don't trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence."

Trump and Sessions seem unmoved by these concerns. Driven by the firm belief that an aggressive police force and "tough on crime" policies are necessary to stop crime, they've taken yet another step to unleash the police in America — and given cops easier access to tank-like vehicles and grenade launchers.