More than nine months after the paramilitary response to anti-police protests sent shockwaves around the world from the streets of Ferguson, Barack Obama is taking matters into his own hands.
The president said on Monday that he will ban the US government from providing certain types of military-style equipment to local police departments and sharply control other weapons and gear provided to law enforcement.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said during a speech in Camden, New Jersey on Monday. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message. So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Obama chose Camden, once among the poorest and most violent cities in American, to highlight how community-based policing approach can both bring down crime and repair relations between officers and residents. There, Obama touted the progress of Camden County police department, which he said doubled the size of its force and put more officers into the field so that they could get to know the residents they police.
The White House said 21 police agencies nationwide, including those of Camden and nearby Philadelphia, have agreed to start putting out never-before-released data on citizen interactions like use of force, stops, citations and officer-involved shootings. Congressional reform on de-escalating militarized gear in local law enforcement has stalled.
“A lot of the issues that have been raised here,” Obama said, referring to Camden, “and in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and New York, [that] goes beyond policing. We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about.”
The announcement coincides with the release of a long-awaited report from a task force on policing assembled by Obama in response to the turmoil in Ferguson following the death of teenager Michael Brown in August.
The 116-page report recommends an even broader taskforce on criminal justice reform, alongside several proposals for local agencies around the US focused on how police can build trust in communities, especially those disproportionately affected by crime.
“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public,” the report said.
The 21st Century Policing Task Force, made up of 12 members from academia and law enforcement, was asked to propose solutions to overcome racial bias in police operations and recommend ways to improve relations between agencies and the communities they serve.
The taskforce has now called for Obama to support the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force, which would be charged with examining all aspects of the criminal justice system and suggesting reforms.
It also recommends Obama support community-based initiatives as a way to address issues closely linked to crime, including poverty, education, and health and safety.
Police reform advocates welcomed Obama’s announcement and the report’s recommendations, but called on leaders at every level to keep pushing for systematic changes.
“We applaud President Obama and the Task Force on 21st Century Policing for their leadership in bringing some important recommendations to the forefront of the national dialogue on how to improve police accountability and transparency,” said Communities United for Police Reform spokesperson Joo-Hyun Kang. “It’s now critical for local elected officials to make good on many of these recommendations so the report doesn’t simply remain as a piece of paper.”
Robert Gangi, the director of the New York City-based Police Reform Organizing Project (Prop) said the president’s action on military-grade equipment called the ban “low-hanging fruit” and said it failed to attack the heart of the problem.
“The problem for people in New York City is not the tanks rolling into East New York or Harlem,” Gangi said. “The problem is that police harass residents in those communities on a daily basis. The changes don’t address the day to day discrimination.”
The crisis in Ferguson was just one in a series of police killings of unarmed black men – including Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and other civilians – that gave rise to a national protest movement. Earlier this month, Baltimore erupted in protest after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, apparently from injuries suffered while in police custody.
Obama has been slow to formally confront the long-simmering distrust between minority communities and police. Publicly he has straddled the line between official support for law enforcement and due process. Privately, with the debate compounded by emotional and historical weight, activists and civil liberties groups have pushed him to enact immediate reform.
“In addressing the issues in Baltimore or Ferguson or New York, the point I made was that if we’re just looking at policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly,” Obama said during a recent speech in New York City marking the expansion of his My Brother’s Keeper program. “If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities, it’s not fair to the police.”
The lack of accurate data on killings of civilians by police is among the many points of public frustration laid bare by demonstrations. “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country last week, last year, the last decade – it’s ridiculous,” FBI director James Comey said recently.
In addition, a longer list of equipment the federal government provides will come under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets and shields. From October police will have to get approval from their city council, mayor or some other local governing body to obtain it, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on the use of the equipment.
The images that emerged from the streets of Ferguson last August were striking. Police in Kevlar vests and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles and teargas, squared off with unarmed protesters in jeans and T-shirts.
Police militarization rose to prominence last year after Brown’s death. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama last in August.
The administration also is launching an online toolkit to encourage the use of body cameras to record police interactions. And the Justice Department is giving $163m in grants to incentivize police departments to adopt the report’s recommendations.
Ron Davis, director of the office of community oriented policing services at the Department of Justice, told reporters he hoped the report could be a “key transformational document” in rebuilding trust that has been destroyed in recent years between police and minority communities.
“We are without a doubt sitting at a defining moment for American policing,” said Davis, a 30-year police veteran and former chief of the East Palo Alto (California) police department. “We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, that it must also include the presence of justice.”
Source: The Guardian