Police groups nationwide have raised questions about the Obama administration’s decision to restrict certain surplus military equipment from being transferred to local police departments. But similar legislation in Congress is drawing interest from a tactical-officers group.
The military surplus stream, leading from the armed forces to police departments across the country, is going dry.
In its place will be new standards for “effective community policing”—a clear response to recent outbreaks of violence between police and civil rights activists in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. President Obama’s change to the military-surplus program, announced this week, will put police departments and tactical officers in a tight spot, according to law enforcement groups.
The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was first to criticize the ban on the transfer of certain surplus military equipment, including tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, and grenade launchers, from the federal government to local police, calling it a threat to police officer safety.
“The FOP is the most aggressive law enforcement advocacy group in Washington, and we will be at our most aggressive in asserting the need for officer safety and officer rights in any police changes that are to be effected,” FOP Executive Director James Pasco told Politico on Monday.
Pasco cited the situation in Baltimore, which he said quickly turned chaotic because of an underequipped police force, as a sign that this kind of equipment still matters for officers. “[Just] because you don’t like the optics, you can’t send police officers out to be hurt or killed,” he said.
Other police groups, such as the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) and the National Association of Police Organizations, expressed concern that the rule might affect defensive equipment like shields.
“We met with the vice president, and there was no hint that this was coming down the pipeline,” NSA Deputy Executive Director Jonathan Fulton Thompson told The Washington Times. “I was surprised, and, frankly, so were our members. Our concerns seem to fall on deaf ears.”
Some state-level organizations are less troubled by on the ban. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, for example, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the change will provide a more structured process for procuring military-type equipment, but that the real solution to the problem is better training for cops on interacting with community residents.
Legislation Draws support
Meanwhile, a piece of similar legislation in Congress, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), has support from the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), which has opposed substantial cutbacks to the military surplus program. The Protecting Communities and Police Act would restrict police departments from obtaining a certain type of mine-resistant armored vehicle while requiring stricter standards on other types of equipment.
McCaskill’s bill would still make devices like grenade launchers harder for local law enforcement to procure. The measure would also set aside funding to help pay for body cameras for police officers.
NTOA praised the bill, which also has support from the NAACP and a number of local police department groups in the St. Louis area, as well as the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
“All can agree that there is a need for increased transparency and accountability in these federal programs that are providing needed resources for law enforcement,” NTOA Executive Director Mark Lomax said in a news release earlier this month. “We applaud Sen. McCaskill for her leadership on this issue and look forward to continuing to work with her on this.”
However, FOP has suggested that the bill could limit access to body armor.
“The issue we need to address is not one of equipment or availability or accountability of Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) teams, but one of leadership,” FOP National President Chuck Canterbury wrote in a letter to McCaskill, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.