Government & Politics

Politics and Policy: Obama's 'Ban' on Military Supplies for Police

As with all of his policy decisions, this move is entirely for political reasons.

Paul Albaugh · May 19, 2015

On Monday, Barack Obama announced a ban on some of the surplus military style gear that has been transferred to police departments over the last several years. The announcement is surprising, given Obama’s track record of being on the wrong side of almost every policy. As with all of his policy decisions, though, this move is entirely for political reasons.

We have previously expressed concern about the militarization of police forces across our nation. Is it really necessary for local police forces to use military gear and vehicles in their duties to serve and protect? Perhaps one might point to violence and rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore as a reason for this military equipment, but it’s also arguable that — at least in Ferguson — it only made things worse.

None of this is to say there aren’t legitimate concerns for officers who seek protection from violent criminals. “We need to only look back to Baltimore to see what happens when officers are sent out ill-equipped in a disturbance situation,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, in response to Obama’s order. “Because you don’t like the optics, you can’t send police officers out to be hurt or killed.”

Indeed, our society has devolved in dangerous ways and law enforcement officers are on the front lines. That said, this escalation and war-like view of civilian law enforcement is troubling for those who love Liberty.

Police departments have been able to arm themselves in recent years through the Defense Department’s 1033 Program for excess property. Since its inception in 1997, more than $4.3 billion worth of equipment has been transferred to local police departments with at least half a billion dollars' worth transferred in 2013 alone.

We can’t blame police departments for accepting surplus military gear. Think about it; in an era of budget constraints amongst police forces across the nation, who wouldn’t accept such a sweet deal? On another note, at least some of the military gear was staying in our own country instead of being sold or given to our past, future or even present enemies. Oh, wait, that’s still happening.

The Washington Post highlights that “banned items are tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50-caliber or higher and some types of camouflage uniforms. … Other equipment, including tactical vehicles [such as MRAPs], explosives and riot equipment, will be transferred only if local police provide additional certification and assurances that the gear will be used responsibly.”

Two points: First, other than bayonets, everything on this list was already banned. Second, as Reason’s Scott Shackford notes, however, the layer of certification is merely “another layer of bureaucracy.” And with a federal bribe to the tune of $163 million to get law enforcement agencies on board, who will be first in line?

Speaking before a crowd in Camden, New Jersey, Obama stated, “We’ve seen how militarized gear sometimes gives people a feeling like they are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them. … Some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for local police departments.”

In the wake of protests against police across the nation, Obama’s remarks reveal his political motivation. He’s saying, “I’m with you, the people of these cities who are the victims of out of control cops, and I’m going to do something about it.”

But, per his standard divisive tactics, he’s pitting the police against the people. That only exacerbates the problem. Is it really out of control cops with military gear that cause lawlessness, or is it failed government policies that stifle economic opportunities and prevent people from leaving poverty plantations and drug zones?

Again, we aren’t disputing Obama’s executive action to demilitarize police forces, as it may open the door for further action to be taken through Congress. But it’s his intentions behind doing it now that cause concern. Recently, several on the far Left, most notably Al Sharpton, have called for federalizing police forces, an unconstitutional idea that Obama had floated on the campaign trail in 2008. Let’s hope his effort to supply or not supply local police isn’t a step toward that goal.

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