American cities resemble war zones during times of protest. Now, Washington’s going to try to fix this problem by rolling back a 25-year-old program that supplied local police forces with free surplus military gear. It’s about damn time—but unfortunately, it’s not going to solve America’s police problems.
President Obama just issued a ban on giving certain military-style gear to police, effective immediately. However, these reforms will not ban police from using military gear entirely. The ban applies only to gear like grenade launchers, firearms of .50-caliber or higher, weaponized aircraft, vehicles with tank treads, bayonets, and certain types of camouflage. But there is a loophole. If officers get extra training and practice tighter record-keeping, the federal government will continue to give local police departments things like wheeled armored vehicles, specialized weaponry, manned aircraft, battering rams, drones, helmets, riot batons, and explosives. So the police will still be militarized. They’ll just be a little less militarized and, hopefully, a little better trained.
The president is scaling back Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act, the policy that enabled the Defense Department to punt surplus military equipment to local police. However, since it went into effect in 1997, the 1033 Program has given police over $4.3 billion in gear. And since the ban starts now, there’s no reason to believe that police departments will be forced to surrender any of the equipment already in their arsenals.
But here’s the real problem. Police haven’t been using bayonets and rocket launchers to kill unarmed civilians—usually black men. They’re using handguns. But the issue isn’t handguns either — it’s handguns combined with poor training, institutional racism, lack of accountability, counterinsurgency techniques, and bad decision-making.
Many people, including President Obama, believe that requiring police to wear body cameras will help matters. This attempt at a fix gets closer to the core of America’s police problem. An indisputable visual record of every incident should hold officers accountable for bad behavior, some say. That’s why the president just set aside $20 million to buy (a small number) of body cams for cops.
However, as researchers have argued many times in the past, the short- and longterm benefit of body cams remains entirely unclear. The footage has never lead to the conviction of an officer, and more often than not, body cams become a tool that enable cops to get off the hook.
Like increased funding for body cams, Obama’s new ban on military-style equipment sounds like political posturing. Obama is taking action so that he appears to be solving a problem without actually addressing the underlying issues. It’s a start, but it’s only a start.
Based on his remarks in Camden, New Jersey, just a few hours after news of the ban made headlines, the military weapons ban is only part of the president’s agenda for police reform. Obama talked talked about how police need to “get out of their squad cars into the communities they should be serving.”
At the root of America’s police problem lies a toxic lack of trust between cops and citizens. Body cams and military gear aside, police need better training and better integration into the communities they’re protecting. Police need to adopt better ways to use non-lethal weapons and, quite frankly, how to avoid using weapons at all costs. Police reform has to begin and end with better training and community relations. As Obama said, “We can’t just focus on the problems when there’s a disturbance.”
In an ideal world, our longterm plan might involve a more dramatic solution, like allowing officers to carry guns only in special circumstances. That’s how it works in England and Wales, where police recently went two years without fatally shooting anyone. Last year, Gawker reported that police shot and killed 22 unarmed people of color during the same time period. But this isn’t a practical solution in the United States right now, where our citizens are frequently armed. We’d need to disarm the entire nation before thinking about disarming police. And that is beyond the scope of these reforms — and this article.
Obama glossed over the military weapons ban, and emphasized real problems that prevent police from working more closely with those communities. It’s worth quoting him at length:
We can’t just expect police departments to solve these problems. If communities are being isolated and segregated without opportunity and without investment and without jobs; if we politicians are just ramping up long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes… if we’re spending a whole lot of money on prisons and not on schools and books… we’re being counterproductive. It’s not a good strategy.
In Obama’s words, “We’ve all got to step up. We’ve all got to care about what happens.” We can’t reform policing in any meaningful way without involving everyone else.
Images via Getty / AP