President Obama will implement the recommendations of a federal working group on police equipment that included representatives from the Dept. of Defense, Dept. of Justice and Homeland Security to prohibit the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and large-caliber firearms from the federal government to local law enforcement, or the purchase of those items with federal funds.
The working group also created a list of restricted equipment that law enforcement may acquire only in accordance with new controls (which are not specifically spelled out). This controlled list includes armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear, and specialized firearms and ammunition. The working group noted that the federal government can’t prevent local police from acquiring such equipment on their own, but urges localities to consider carefully why local police would need such equipment. Across all programs, the transfer of equipment on the controlled list will require the consent of the appropriate local civilian governing body (e.g., City Council, County Council, Mayor) as well as a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the equipment and the appropriate law enforcement purpose that it will serve. Radley Balko, author of “The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” nails it in a blog for the Washington Post:
But the push will have to come from the bottom up, too. The federal government can stop contributing to the problem, but it will be up to local activists, voters and elected officials to actually change it. There will be resistance, from unions, from police advocates and probably from politicians. But police agencies are ultimately answerable to the communities they serve. If a city’s police leadership has adopted use of force policies that don’t conform with a community’s values, the community should demand new leadership.
Although the restrictions on military equipment are getting most of the media attention, they are only one piece of a broader initiative on policing the White House is calling the Creating Opportunity for All Through Stronger, Safer Communities or COATSSC.
Data and Transparency
Twenty one cities/counties are participating in a police data initiative that will involve experts in coding, technology and transparency tasked with helping police “to use data and technology in ways that build community trust and reduce unnecessary uses of force.” According to the White House, community members and civil rights groups will be also included in the process. The initiative may provide an opening for activists to influence what data is collected and how it will be made public in a usable form.
The Obama Administration has committed to spending $75 million over 3 years to buy 50,000 body cameras. Local law enforcement agencies are directed to a body worn camera Tool Kit developed by the Dept. of Justice (analysis of that to come later this week).
The Camden Miracle?
President Obama made his announcement in Camden, New Jersey, to highlight the “progress” that city has made in using community policing to reduce crime. But the ACLU of New Jersey has raised concerns “about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in Camden since the new force took over. An emphasis on making arrests and issuing tickets for activities like riding a bicycle without a bell, disorderly conduct, or failing to adequately maintain lights or reflectors on a vehicle are counter to the practice of community policing.” According to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Camden police issued 339 summonses for riding a bicycle without a bell or light over the course of one year. And, the ACLU reports that complaints about excessive force have increased to 65 in one year, the most for any police force in New Jersey. Police in Camden have also created their own surveillance state. According to Slate “a staff of 120 civilian clerks and analysts… run a new intelligence center equipped with surveillance cameras and ShotSpotter microphone technology that alerts police whenever a gun is fired.”
“We know that reforming 1033 or putting limits on military equipment is not going to be enough,” Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, told the Washington Post. “Any reform done to policing must be systemic and transformative. Militarized police culture, surveillance technologies and equipment must all be looked at if we are to see an end of police militarization in our communities.”
Photo: Riot police in Pittsburgh during protests at the G-20 summit in 2009 Credit: Sue Udry