Skip to main content

Trump Revives Program That Militarized Local Police Forces

President Obama curtailed a program transferring surplus military gear to local and state police after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Now Trump wants to restore the program in the name of officer safety.
Police advance on demonstrators protesting on August 17th, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Police advance on demonstrators protesting on August 17th, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

On Monday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told an audience at the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) convention that President Donald Trump will sign an executive order today reviving a program to transfer surplus military gear to state and local police departments.

The program was curtailed under the Obama administration in 2015, after photos of police responding to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in armored vehicles sparked public outcry. "Those restrictions went too far," Sessions said on Monday. "We will not put superficial concerns above public safety."

The FOP praised Trump's decision. "Protective equipment is essential to officer and public safety in a wide variety of life and death situations," Chuck Canterbury, the FOP president, told the Washington Post. "The previous administration was more concerned about the image of law enforcement being too 'militarized' than they were about our safety."

But the bulk of evidence suggests that a militarized police force actually puts both cops or communities in more danger. The presence of weapons can incite violence, as Jared Keller wrote in Pacific Standard in 2015:

The "weapons effect," as psychologist Brad Bushman called it in Psychology Today, says that the mere presence of a weapon or the threat of violence can in turn make us ready for violence. The logic of weapons naturally escalating tensions applies on both sides of confrontation between police and a crowd. Either the flash of a knife in a crowd or the menacing stance of a riot policeman can send both cops and citizens into a social-psychological arms race. Psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage established weapons as "aggression-eliciting stimuli" in a 1967 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well," Berkowitz explained. "The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger."

Many civil rights groups have spoken out against the restoration of the program, which has transferred more than $5 billion worth of armored vehicles, riot gear, weapons, ammunition, and other surplus military equipment to local and state authorities since it began in the 1990s.

"These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone," Vanita Gupta, who was head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, said in a statement. "Most in law enforcement understand why these guidelines and this approach to policing are critical to rebuilding trust with the communities they serve, especially communities of color, and also to reducing the risk of violence in our communities."

It's easy to see why it'd be harder to engage with the public (and de-escalate dangerous situations) from atop a tank. Effective policing requires the trust of the communities.