Editorial Board

Police Forces Are Not Armies

Trump makes a bad situation worse.

Not necessary.

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

With more political demonstrations looming in cities around the country, the U.S. Justice Department should be assisting local police departments in drawing up plans to prevent violence, and training officers to carry them out. Instead, it is mistaking their lack of preparation for a lack of equipment. The consequences could be ugly.

President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order restoring a program that supplies surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Under President Barack Obama, the program had been suspended since 2015, after officers in Ferguson, Missouri, inflamed peaceful protests by parading around in armored vehicles, wearing combat fatigues and gear, and pointing machine guns at crowds -- as if Ferguson were Fallujah.

U.S. soldiers spend a great deal of time (and taxpayers spend a great deal of money) on training exercises, where they learn how to use high-powered equipment in combat conditions. With a few big-city exceptions, local police departments do not have the resources or expertise to conduct the kind of training necessary to deploy such equipment safely on local streets. Doing so anyway invites calamity.

In announcing the program’s restoration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed to military helmets and bulletproof vests as evidence of its life-saving value. Yet police departments had access to both pieces of equipment under the Obama-era policy, which only prohibited the transfer of certain types of equipment: armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, firearms of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms.

States and localities could still acquire other types of military equipment -- helicopters, wheeled armor vehicles, battering rams, explosives, and riot batons, helmets and shields -- by documenting a valid need, as well as their controls and procedures for preventing misuse. The previous policy also directed police departments to provide training in the use of transferred equipment, put in place protocols for supervision, and issue after-action reports. All of that has now been scrapped.

Sessions said Obama’s restrictions “went too far.” In fact, they were reasonable restraints on a program that had grown too rapidly -- from less than $40 million in 2006 to more than $500 million in 2013 -- without proper safeguards for public safety and civil liberties.

Trump’s disgraceful response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, overshadowed the city’s police department’s failure to keep the peace. Sadly, most police departments are equally ill-prepared to defuse volatile demonstrations. The U.S. Justice Department’s policy reversal threatens to make the problem worse.

    --Editors: Francis Barry, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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