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Obama limits military-style equipment for police forces

Civil unrest leads to shift by Obama

President Obama greeted Jaiden Steele of Camden, N.J., on his visit Monday to promote the city’s police community work.Tim Hawk/South Jersey Times via AP

CAMDEN, N.J. — President Obama on Monday banned the federal provision of some types of military-style equipment to local police departments and sharply restricted the availability of others.

The ban is part of Obama’s push to ease tensions between law enforcement and minority communities in reaction to the crises in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities.

He took the action after a task force he created in January decided that police departments should be barred from using federal funds to acquire items that include tracked armored vehicles, the highest-caliber firearms and ammunition, and camouflage uniforms.

The ban is part of a series of steps the president has made to try to build trust between law enforcement organizations and the citizens they are charged with protecting.


Obama promoted the effort Monday during a visit to Camden, N.J. The city, racked by poverty and crime, has become a national model for better relations between the police and citizens after replacing its beleaguered police force with a county-run system that prioritizes community ties.

Obama held up Camden as a counterpoint to places such as Ferguson, where the killing of a young black man by a white police officer last summer and the violent protests that followed exposed long-simmering hostility between law enforcement agencies and minorities in cities around the country.

The trip and the action on military-style equipment coincided with the release Monday of a report from a policing task force that Obama formed late last year in response to the crisis in Ferguson.

The 116-page report calls for law enforcement agencies to “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.” It contains dozens of recommendations for agencies throughout the country.

“We are, without a doubt, sitting at a defining moment in American policing,” Ronald L. Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice, told reporters in a conference call organized by the White House. “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.”


After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government sharply expanded its efforts to provide police departments with military-style gear through grant programs at the Homeland Security and Justice Departments and transfers from the Defense Department.

The programs have enjoyed widespread popularity among lawmakers eager to take steps to protect their communities and constantly in search of ways to steer federal money to their districts and states.

The report from the task force cited the police response to the Ferguson unrest as an example of how the “militarization” of police departments can lead to fear and mistrust.

In addition to prohibiting some equipment outright, officials said, Obama accepted the group’s recommendation to impose new restrictions on other military-style items, such as wheeled armored vehicles, pyrotechnics, battering rams, and riot gear, and more stringent requirements for training and information collection for departments that acquire them.

“The idea is to make sure that we strike a balance in providing the equipment, which is appropriate and useful and important for local law enforcement agencies to keep the community safe, while at the same time putting standards in place,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.