Major Reforms Are Coming To A Police Department Near You

May 18th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

On Monday, President Obama is expected to announce a ban on the federal government providing certain types of military-grade equipment to local police forces, while also limiting the availability of others.

It is the latest effort by the Obama administration to mitigate tensions between local police departments and minority communities across the country, following a string of protests in a number of cities including Ferguson, Mo., where tensions over what observers saw as a militarized police force flared last summer.

Ferguson SWAT team

Local law enforcement's military-style equipment, acquired through a federal provisions program, has come to represent a central concern in many communities that have long felt targeted by the police. That equipment, including armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and high-caliber guns and ammunition, helped paint the disparate image of a battle-ready police body bristling with equipment in the face of largely peaceful protesters in cities across the country. It's that picture that Obama's plan seeks to re-imagine after a task force on policing, created in January, decided that local departments should not be able to buy such overbearing equipment using federal funds.

"We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing," Ronald L. Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said in a press call. "We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, but it must also include a presence for justice."

The president's announcement will come as his policing task force releases a report Monday urging police to "embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mind-set to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public," among other recommendations that seek to address the fear and mistrust that flourished among citizens in cities like Ferguson. The report's recommendations will serve as more of a blueprint for departments, since the federal government has limited powers when it comes to enforcing reforms in local and state police forces. But it will have a tangible effect when it comes to the material goods so many people take issue with.

As the New York Times reports, the ability of local law enforcement to acquire military-style equipment increased in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, in a federal effort to beef up local safety by providing grants through Homeland Security and Justice Department programs for departmental purchases, as well as transfer programs through the Defense Department. But as the task's report notes, the popularity of those programs––and certainly their fruits––have engendered nuanced fear and mistrust in communities where tensions with police have long simmered. The report points to Ferguson as an example of that correlation.

Taking cues from the report, Obama will impose bans on equipment like wheeled armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition higher than .50-caliber, and certain types of camouflage outfits. He will also introduce new requirements for training and information collection for police departments that do acquire special equipment, according to the report. The president will also announce $163 million in grant opportunities in for police departments to follow the report's suggestions, as well as a "tool kit" for using body-worn cameras, which many departments have purchased with Justice Department grant money.

Obama is set to announce the new restrictions in Camden, N.J., which he will hold up as a paragon of success in implementing police reforms that take a more collaborative approach between citizens and officers, according to a White House mass email. Camden is one a few cities that cabinet members are highlighting "where local leaders are improving the quality of life in their communities -- on issues from health care to education to transparency in policing," the email said. As the Times notes, Camden is also one of 20 cities participating in a White House program to increase law enforcement accountability using police data from things like traffic stops to shootings.