Brace yourself for unsettling news. Attorney Jeff Sessions just told a huge group of law enforcement officials in Nashville that President Trump will sign an executive order that reverses an Obama-era ban on the military giving equipment to local police for free. That means that cops will once again have access to tanks, bayonets, grenade launchers, weaponized aircraft, and ammunition above .50 caliber. For free.
The new plan to arm local police with military equipment will reportedly take place immediately, sending shivers down the spine of anyone who’s feared the semblance of martial law in Trump’s America. There will be no public comment period, no deliberation with experts, no let’s-wait-a-week-and-think-about-this. Just Trump signing an order. The executive order will also make it easier for police departments to obtain heavy-hitting gear like riot helmets, batons, drones, armored vehicles, helicopters, and explosives. At the announcement, Sessions told the Fraternal Order of Police that this move shows that Donald Trump supports law enforcement and is tough on crime.
But crime is only part of the story when it comes to this military surplus plan. Known as the “1033 program,” the military sharing equipment with local police dates back to a change in the National Defense Authorization Act from the 1980s. It’s worth pointing out that, 30 years ago, violent crime rates were almost triple what they are now. The United States was also not at war, so the inventory of available military equipment was much smaller than it was in, say, 2014, three years after American troops completed the withdrawal from Iraq. That was the same year that protesters took to the streets of Ferguson to protest a white police officer shooting and killing Darren Wilson, a unarmed black teenager. The officer was never charged, and Ferguson police took to the streets in armored personnel carriers, wearing body armor, and firing tear gas at the protesters from grenade launchers. Some of this equipment had been obtained through the 1033 program.
The unrest in Ferguson—particularly the militant police response—prompted Obama to change the military surplus program a few months after the protests. President Obama signed an executive order in May 2015 that banned police from receiving deadly weapons like bayonets as well as senselessly serious equipment like tanks and weaponized aircraft. This stroke of a pen certainly wasn’t going to solve the problems that law enforcement faced surrounding issues of violence and accountability. But at least it sent a message that cops are meant to be guardians of the law, not warriors.
“The safeguards were reasonable: Police departments don’t need grenade launchers and bayonets to protect our communities,” Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told The Huffington Post. “They should have the appropriate training for the equipment they use, and the federal government should have checks and accountability measures for law enforcement’s use of certain military equipment.”
Based on how swiftly Sessions and Trump are removing those safeguards, one might assume that caution is not this administration’s intent. And so another week arrives and another flick of Trump’s wrist turns the clock on progress backwards, hurdling America headlong into its troubled past. It seems obvious that this administration favors men like disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who Trump pardoned last week, months before the sheriff was to be sentenced for carrying on with racial profiling, despite the courts telling him not to do so. Being tough on crime, Trump would have you believe, does not necessarily mean jailing criminals.
Trump is supposed to sign this executive order on Monday, and hopefully, we’ll learn more about the specifics when he does.