That the Trump administration's embrace of greater militarization of local police forces grabbed headlines this week shouldn't be surprising. The announcement amounts to the current administration following up an Obama-era publicity stunt with one of its own. To be sure, the new policy is bad, but it changes less than you might think.
Former President Barack Obama's executive order—issued three years ago, in the wake of televised scenes of police tanks rolling through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—restricted sales of certain classes of military equipment from the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows state and local police departments to purchase surplus military equipment from the U.S. Defense Department.
To hear Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ characterization of the Obama order, one would get the impression officers were limited to slingshots. The new policy, rolled out by Sessions Aug. 28 at a national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police, will “ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job," the attorney general told a cheering crowd of officers.
The truth is that Obama’s reforms were largely ineffectual. That, in turn, renders Trump’s so-called "new" policy more a symbolic pose than an actual change to the status quo. Moreover, even if Obama’s executive order did compromise the military readiness of American police—which it manifestly did not—it’s worth asking why we would want the police to be military-ready in the first place.
Under the original executive order, Obama prohibited police departments from using federal funds—mostly those provided under the equitable sharing program—to acquire seven types of military gear: tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms and bayonets that are used as regular knifes and not affixed to rifles. Equitable sharing, which faces controversies of its own, is a program that allows states and localities to share the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture with federal law enforcement.
Notably, state and local agencies were still allowed under the Obama order to use other nonfederal funds to purchase these items. If a police department wanted to buy grenade launchers, it just had to find another pot of money. And to be clear, the moderate reforms made to the 1033 program did not stymie the flow of military gear to police departments. In fact, in the year following the executive order, the total value of equipment distributed through the program actually increased. The most popular military gear that was still up for grabs under Obama’s policy included so-called "assault" rifles (M16s and M4s); Humvees; helicopters; night-vision goggles; mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs); and BearCat vehicles.
To demonstrate the futility of Obama’s ban, of the seven items on the list of prohibited equipment, only one had actually been given to police departments in recent years leading up to the ban, according to DoD spokesman Mark Wright. “The only one that we were still issuing at this time were the bayonets ... So that’s the immediate effect of the program.” In other words, the net effect of Obama’s restrictions was to force law-enforcement agencies to purchase their bayonets from the federal government with money they didn't get through the federal asset-forfeiture program. That's a far sight from hamstringing law enforcement.
But while Obama and Trump both are guilty of excessively hyping their mostly irrelevant policy orders, there is a different debate we should be having. When you arm and train county sheriffs' offices with weapons of war, how does it affect the mindset of those we traditionally have called peace officers? Soldiers are trained to “stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.” This stands in stark contrast to the police officer’s motto: “to protect and serve.”
Police officers are expected, under formal law and longstanding American norms, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the “bad guys.” A suspect in custody is still a citizen, whom the government must presume is innocent until proven guilty. For police officers who serve local communities, lethal violence is an absolute last resort. It is this mutual understanding that serves as the foundation of trust between law enforcement and the public it serves.
But give a person a grenade launcher, a Humvee and an M-4 assault rifle, and he’ll soon start to act like a soldier. The number of annual raids conducted by local police SWAT rose more than 1,500 percent from 1980 to 2000. The increase in these "no-knock" raids, which sometimes target innocent people, correlates to the increase in militarized police forces. By 2005, at least 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people had their own SWAT team.
Police officers regularly carry out dangerous and difficult tasks. It’s reasonable for those departments most likely to face terror-level threats—mostly, police units serving larger, vulnerable urban centers—to possess gear that small towns do not. But when Granite City, Illinois (pop. 29,375) acquires 25 M16 and M14 rifles, a military-armored truck and a robot for "explosive ordnance disposal," we need to examine what we are asking of law enforcement. To be clear, officers and departments are hardly to blame for this trend. It’s the role of Congress to oversee wasteful agency spending, and it clearly has been ignoring the taxpayers’ $2.2 billion this program has accumulated since 2006.
Police-friendly reforms encourage community policing, restore trust between citizens and officers and respect the principles of limited government. Conservatives, in particular, should favor that police continue to serve their traditional role. We do our officers a massive disservice when we expect them to be both warriors and guardians.
Jonathan Haggerty (@JHaggrid) is a justice policy associate at R Street Institute. Arthur Rizer (@ArthurRizer) is R Street’s director of justice and national security policy.